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Perspective. It is good practice to identify core research questions and important elements of study designs a-priori, to prevent post-hoc “fishing” exercises and reduce the role of drawing false-positive conclusions [16,19]. However, programs in education, and evaluations of them, evolve  making it difficult to follow a charted course. For example, in the lifetime of a program and its evaluation, new curricular content or evidence standards for evaluations may be introduced and thus drive changes in program implementation and evaluation.
Objectives. This work presents three cases from program impact evaluations conducted through the Department of Education. In each case, unanticipated results or changes in study context had significant consequences for program recipients, developers and evaluators. We discuss responses, either enacted or envisioned, for addressing these challenges. The work is intended to serve as a practical guide for researchers and evaluators who encounter similar issues.
Methods/Data Sources/Results. The first case concerns the problem of outcome measures keeping pace with evolving content standards. For example, in assessing impacts of science programs, program developers and evaluators are challenged to find assessments that align with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Existing NGSS-aligned assessments are largely untested or in development, resulting in the evaluator having to find, adapt or develop instruments with strong reliability, and construct and face validity – ones that will be accepted by independent review and not considered over-aligned to the interventions. We describe a hands-on approach to working with a state testing agency to develop forms to assess impacts on science generally, and on constructs more-specifically aligned to the program evaluated.
The second case concerns the problem of reprioritizing research questions mid-study. As noted above, researchers often identify primary (confirmatory) research questions at the outset of a study. Such questions are held to high evidence standards, and are differentiated from exploratory questions, which often originate after examining the data, and must be replicated to be considered reliable . However, sometimes, exploratory analyses produce unanticipated results that may be highly consequential. The evaluator must grapple with the dilemma of whether to re-prioritize the result, or attempt to proceed with replication. We discuss this issue with reference to an RCT in which the dilemma arose.
The third addresses the problem of designing and implementing a study that meets one set of evidence standards, when the results will be reviewed according to a later version of those standards. A practical question is what to do when this happens and consequently the study falls under a lower tier of the new evidence standard. With reference to an actual case, we consider several response options, including assessing the consequence of this reclassification for future funding of the program, and augmenting the research design to satisfy the new standards of evidence.
Significance. Responding to demands of changing contexts, programs in the social sciences are moving targets. They demand a flexible but well-reasoned and justified approach to evaluation. This session provides practical examples and is intended to promote discussion for generating solutions to challenges of this kind.