As a final note, while it is important to document the unique and valuable contributions of informal opportunities for learning, there is a tension in the field regarding the degree to which one can or should try to standardize assessments of learning. On the one hand, the field has an overarching commitment to valuing the great diversity of ways in which informal learning experiences can positively affect participants. On the other hand, researchers and practitioners recognize the importance of building consensus in the field regarding standards for research methods and learning outcomes. Without a common framework specifying outcomes and approaches, it is difficult to show gains in learning that occur across experiences and/or across time. Success in creating more rigorous, meaningful, and equitable opportunities for science learning depends on understanding what opportunities for science learning exist across the educational landscape; what the nature of this learning is in a variety of environments; how outcomes currently complement and build on one another; and how designs, processes, and practices for supporting learning can be improved in the future.
The educational research community generally makes a distinction between assessment and evaluation. Assessment is the set of approaches and techniques used to determine what individuals learn from an experience. Evaluation is the set of approaches and techniques used to make judgments about the effectiveness or quality of a program, approach, or treatment; improve its effectiveness; and inform decisions about its design, development, and implementation. Assessment targets what learners have or have not learned, whereas evaluation targets the quality of the experience or intervention. While assessment is often, though not always, part of an evaluation, it is important to recognize that they are separate endeavors.
The broad enterprise of evaluation includes various phases, which tend to be referred to in the field of informal science education as front-end evaluation, formative evaluation, and summative evaluation. The first stage of program development, which includes identifying appropriate goals and determining the audience, is often referred to as front-end evaluation. During the design and development phase of a project, formative evaluation is often conducted. The purpose of this step is to determine what is working—or not working—before the project is completed. In other words, front-end evaluation helps challenge assumptions and pro-