“Evidence-Based” vs. “Research-Based”: Understanding the Differences

Often, when reviewing resources, programs, or assessments, we might come across terms like “evidence-based” or “research-based.” These terms each tell us something about the resources that they describe and the evidence supporting them. Understanding each term’s meaning can help us make informed decisions when selecting and implementing resources.

So what do these terms mean, exactly?

Typically, the terms Evidence-Based Practices or Evidence-Based Programs refer to individual practices (for example, single lessons or in-class activities) or programs (for example, year-long curricula) that are considered effective based on scientific evidence. To deem a program or practice “evidence-based,” researchers will typically study the impact of the resource(s) in a controlled setting – for example, they may study differences in skill growth between students whose educators used the resources and students whose educators did not. If sufficient research suggests that the program or practice is effective, it may be deemed “evidence-based.”

Evidence-Informed (or Research-Based) Practices are practices that were developed based on the best research available in the field. This means that users can feel confident that the strategies and activities included in the program or practice have a strong scientific basis for their use. Unlike Evidence-Based Practices or Programs, Research-Based Practices have not been researched in a controlled setting.

What about assessment?

Terms like “evidence-based” and “research-based” are often used to describe intervention activities, like strategies or curricula designed to build skills in specific areas. But the process of measuring skills with assessment tools can be evidence-based as well. An assessment process can be considered Evidence-Based Assessment if:

  • The choice of skills to be measured by the assessment was informed by research;
  • The assessment method and measurement tools used are informed by scientific research and theory and meet the relevant standards for their intended uses; and
  • The way that the assessment is implemented and interpreted is backed by research.

Using evidence-based assessment to guide or evaluate an intervention gives us confidence that the process is well-suited for our purpose, is grounded in scientific theory, and will be effective for our students.

What Standards Exist for Educational Assessments?

The process of Evidence-Based Assessment involves the use of a measurement tool that “meets the relevant standards for their intended uses.” What are the relevant standards, and how can we know if a tool meets them?

Some foundational standards for educational assessments, as compiled by experts in the educational, psychological, and assessment fields, include:

  1. Validity for an Intended Use: the tool should have been researched to determine that it is valid, or appropriate, for the decisions we may make based on its results. Just like we wouldn’t use a math quiz to inform whether a student needs additional practice with reading comprehension, we shouldn’t use an assessment for purposes outside of those that research has deemed “valid.”
  2. Reliability: the tool should have been researched to ensure that it meets expectations for reliability, or consistency. For example, researchers might explore whether the tool produces similar results if it is completed twice in a short period of time. Reliability can be explored via a variety of methods, depending on the measurement tool.
  3. Fairness: the tool should have been researched to explore how fair, or unbiased, it is among different subgroups of students, such as subgroups based on race, ethnicity, or cultural background. Using a biased measurement tool can lead to biased decision-making and threaten our ability to provide equitable services.

Specific standards within each of these domains, and others, are compiled in the handbook, “Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing” (2014), written by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education. This handbook can be a useful companion when reviewing the specific evidence behind measurement tools.

In Conclusion

Terms like “evidence-based” or “research-based” are useful indicators of the type of evidence behind programs, practices, or assessments – however, they can only tell us so much about the specific research behind each tool. For situations where more information on a resource’s evidence base would be beneficial, it may be helpful to request research summaries or articles from the resource’s publisher for further review.

Further Reading

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