Educational Terms


Education, like all professions, has a specialized vocabulary which may sometimes be difficult to decipher.  The following is a list of terms frequently used in education, along with definitions which hopefully make the terms more understandable.  For questions, please email Bobbi McMasters, Supervisor of Instruction for Giles County Schools, or call 931.363.4558.







Changes in the way tests and/or classroom assignments are designed or administered to respond to the special needs of students with disabilities and of English language learners.


The idea that people (e.g., students or teachers) or an organization (e.g., a school, school district, or state department of education) should be held responsible for improving student achievement and should be rewarded or sanctioned for their success or lack of success in doing so. 



The measure of a student’s progress or learning, usually during the current school year.


A national college admissions test originally known as the American College Testing program.  The ACT test consists of 215 multiple-choice questions in four subject areas:  English, reading, mathematics, and science.  Most colleges now accept either the ACT or the SAT for admissions purposes.  The American College Testing program (ACT) has now expanded to include all of the following assessments:  PLAN, EXPLORE, and ACT.


Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)
An individual state's measure of yearly progress toward achieving state academic standards. Adequate yearly progress is the minimum level of improvement that states, school districts, and schools must achieve each year, according to federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. This progress is determined by a collection of performance measures that a state, its school districts, and subpopulations of students within its schools are supposed to meet.  Whether this progress is met determines if a school or system is in “good standing” and if the state receives federal funding.  In Tennessee, the measures of progress include the following:  (1) specified percentages of students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" on standardized tests in reading/English/language arts and math; (2) participation of a least 95 percent of students on those tests; and (3) for high schools, a specified graduation rate or improvement in the rate.


Annual Measurable Objective (AMO)
The annual target for the percentage of students whose test scores must be proficient or above in English/language arts and mathematics. Meeting the AMO is the first step toward demonstrating adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.


A means of measuring student progress toward national and state goals.
 Teacher-made tests, standardized tests, or tests from textbook companies are examples of assessments that are used to evaluate student performance.


Assessment of Learning

A means of measuring student progress that is summative and occurs after learning takes place.  It is part of an accountability system for student classroom grades or for state accountability and is associated with grading.  Assessment of learning determines learning status at one point in time.  Ex: Friday test


Assessment for learning

A means of measuring student progress that is formative in nature and occurs during the learning process. The teacher is able to diagnose the needs of the students and systematically plan for what should come next in the instruction. Assessment for learning allows students time to practice without penalty and have ownership in determining what they need. Assessment for learning provides students with useful or descriptive feedback to know where they are and where they need to go next in relation to the learning goal. The key point of assessment for learning is how the results of the specific assessment are used.  Ex: exit cards, mid-week quiz, learning games, student self-reflection, teacher response to student needs that is based on mid-week quiz


At-risk student
A student may be designated as “at risk” if he or she is not succeeding in school and is in danger of educational failure.  The student may be designated as “at-risk” based on information gathered from test scores, attendance, behavior, or discipline problems, or due to negative life events, physical or mental challenges, etc.


Average class size
The number of students in classes divided by the number of classes. (Note:  Because some teachers, such as reading specialists, librarians, etc., may have assignments outside the regular classroom, the average class size is usually larger than the pupil-teacher ratio.)



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A standard by which things are measured or compared.


Battelle for Kids

A national, not-for-profit organization that has partnered with the Tennessee Department of Education to provide innovative solutions to educational improvement.  General information about the organization may be found at the Battelle for Kids web site.

A detailed description of a specific level of student achievement expected of students at particular ages, grades, or developmental levels; academic goals set for each grade level.


Benchmark Assessment

A benchmark assessment is one component of a comprehensive assessment system that provides the important data needed by teachers or administrators to serve district, school, and classroom improvement needs.  Benchmark assessments are most commonly short tests administered  to students during the school year that give teachers immediate feedback on how students are meeting academic standards.  Regular use of benchmark assessments is seen by many as a tool to measure student growth and to adjust curriculum to meet individual learning needs.  Benchmark assessments commonly use standardized administration and scoring procedures to help maintain validity, reliability, and fairness.



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Common Core State Standard

A set of expectations for student knowledge and skills at each grade and subject level, commonly adopted by a majority of US states.  The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that young people need for success in college and careers.


Content standards
Standards that describe what students should know and be able to do in core academic subjects at each grade level.


Core curriculum (or core academics)
The basic academic standards that are required of students and assessed in the statewide testing system for K-12 public schools:  English/language arts, history/social sciences, math, and science.


Criterion-referenced test (or CRT)
A test that measures how well a student has learned a specific body of knowledge and skills. The goal is typically to have every student attain a passing mark, not to compare students to each other.


The courses of study offered by a school or district. Tennessee has developed a set of standards that are intended to guide curriculum and instruction.


Cut Score

Cut scores are selected points on the scale score of a test.  The cut score is used to determine whether a particular test score is sufficient for some purpose.  For example, student performance may be classified into one of several categories, such as “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” on the basis of cut scores.  In other words, if a cut score for “basic” achievement is 50, then scores below 50 would be classified as “below basic” and scores of 50 or above would be classified as “basic.” 



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Differentiated instruction
Offering several different learning experiences within one lesson to meet students' varied needs or learning styles.
For example, a teacher may use different teaching methods for students with learning disabilities, or a teacher may have different students within one class working on different skills based on each student’s area of need.  Also referred to as "individualized" or "customized" instruction.


Disaggregated data

Data that is broken into segments of the student population instead of the entire enrollment. Typical segments include students who are economically disadvantaged, from racial or ethnic minority groups, have disabilities, or have limited English fluency. Disaggregated data allows parents and teachers to see how each student group is performing in a school or system.


Distance learning

A broad term encompassing technology that extends the learning community beyond the classroom walls.  Using technology such as two-way, interactive television or computer monitors, a teacher and student(s) in different locations may communicate with one another as in a regular classroom setting.


District Value-Added Leadership Team (DVALT)

Representatives from each school district who have participated in state-led trainings in order to understand the value-added concept and assist other educators in their district in understanding what is meant by “value-added.” 



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Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)

The principal federal law affecting K-12 education.  The No Child Left Behind Act is the most recent reauthorization of ESEA.  Originally enacted in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, ESEA was created to support the education of the country's poorest children and that remains its overarching purpose.  Congress must reauthorize it every six years.  Each reauthorization of ESEA has made some changes, but NCLB was the most dramatic revision of the act since its creation. Its provisions represent a significant change in the federal government's influence in public schools and districts throughout the United States, particularly in terms of assessment and teacher quality.  The US government is currently in the process of reauthorizing this ground-breaking law.


End of Course Test (EOC)

An assessment administered to secondary (or high school) students at the end of the course of study.  End of Course tests are given in the following areas:  English I, English II, Biology, Algebra I, and U.S. History.


English language learner
A student whose home language is not English and who is not proficient enough in the English language to succeed in the school's regular instructional programs, thus qualifying for extra help.


Essential learning

The critical skills, knowledge, and understanding each student must acquire as a result of each course, grade level, and/or unit of instruction in school.  Sometimes also referred to as “power standards,  essential learning  is the core of the curriculum taught in any subject/grade level.



The first part of the ACT testing system, EXPLORE is an educational assessment that students take in the eighth grade. It includes four multiple-choice tests in the following areas:  English, reading, mathematics, and science. 



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First to the Top

The name given to Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan.  Tennessee was one of only two states (the other being Delaware) to win the original Race to the Top grant and was awarded over $500 million to be utilized to improve education in the state.  (see Race to the Top)


Formative assessment
Any form of testing or assessment used by a teacher to evaluate students' knowledge and understanding of particular content and then to adjust instructional practices accordingly toward improving student achievement in that area.  Results are used for feedback during the learning process rather than just at the end.  Formative assessments provide the information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are occurring. In this sense, formative assessment informs both teachers and students about student understanding at a point when timely adjustments can be made.



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High stakes test
Any tests that result in some kind of consequence for those who score low, some kind of reward for those who score high, or both.  For example, students who pass a high school exit exam typically receive a diploma, while students who fail do not.


Higher-order thinking skills

Understanding complex concepts and applying sometimes conflicting information to solve a problem, which may have more than one correct answer.


Highly qualified teacher
According to NCLB, a teacher who has obtained full state teacher certification or has passed the state teacher licensing examination and holds a license to teach in the state, holds a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, and has demonstrated subject area competence in each of the academic subjects in which the teacher teaches.



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The practice of placing students with disabilities in regular classrooms to the fullest extent possible.


Individualized Education Program (IEP)
A written plan created for a student in the special education program by the student's teachers, parents or guardians, the school administrator, and other interested parties. The plan is tailored to the student's specific needs and abilities and outlines goals for the student to reach. The IEP should be reviewed at least once a year.


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

A reauthorization in 1977 of the federal Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This law guarantees children with exceptional needs a free and appropriate public education and requires that each child's education be determined on an individual basis and designed to meet his or her unique needs in the least restrictive environment. It also establishes procedural rights for parents and children.


Additional programs or teaching beyond the regular curriculum for students who are not learning at grade level.  Interventions are generally provided in reading and math but may encompass other subject areas or needs.



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Local Education Agency (LEA)

A public board of education or other public authority within a state that maintains administrative control of public schools in a city, county, township, school district, or other political subdivision of a state.  School districts and county offices of education are both examples of LEAs.




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Modified Academic Achievement Standard (MAAS)
A modified academic achievement standard is an expectation of performance that is

challenging for eligible students, but is less difficult than a grade level academic achievement standard and more demanding than alternate academic achievement standards.  The TCAP-MAAS is an alternate statewide assessment (test) for qualifying students with disabilities.  This assessment’s purpose is to provide a more appropriate means of measuring the skills of a student whose disability interferes with performance on state assessments.  On this test, the academic achievement standards are modified, not the content standards.



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National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
A national test that is given to specific grade levels in specific subjects every other year. A small sample of students, representative of the state, is tested.  NAEP test scores can be compared to national averages.  Tennessee participates in NAEP, though not all states do.


NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act)
Signed into law by President Bush in 2002, No Child Left Behind sets performance guidelines for all schools and also stipulates what must be included in accountability reports to parents. It mandates annual student testing, includes guidelines for underperforming schools, and requires all teachers and assistants to be "highly qualified".  NCLB particularly focuses on assessment, accountability, and teacher quality.


Norm-referenced test (or NRT)
A test which is designed to evaluate how an individual student’s performance compares to that of an appropriate peer group. Usually the group is representative of a cross-section of all US students.



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An initiative designed to organize three largely disconnected levels of public education – preschool, K-12 and postsecondary – with greater coherence and a stronger sense of connectedness.  The P-16 initiative was established in Tennessee in order to create smooth student transitions from one level of education to the next, close achievement gaps, expand learning for all student levels, strengthen relationships between families and schools, provide quality professional development for teachers, and improve college readiness for students.



The second part of the ACT testing system, the PLAN is an educational assessment that students take in the tenth grade. It includes four multiple-choice tests in the following areas:  English, reading, mathematics, and science.  As a "pre-ACT" test, PLAN is a powerful predictor of success on the ACT. The PLAN helps tenth-graders build a solid foundation for future academic and career success and provides information needed to address school districts' high-priority issues.


A collection of various samples of a student’s work throughout the school year that should represent the student’s developmental and/or academic progress.
  It may include writing samples, examples of math problems, art work, results of science experiments, and other such samples of the student’s work.


Power standards

Power standards are those standards that are absolutely essential for students to learn.  Power standards help teachers focus and prioritize what is most important for students to know and be able to do in the time available for teaching and learning.  They guide teachers in pulling together objectives that can be used to design rich, standards-focused, project-based learning experiences for students, as opposed to teaching objectives in isolation. Two questions must guide the determination of power standards:  (1)what essential understandings and skills do students need, and (2)which standards can be clustered or incorporated into others.  Power standards represent the “safety net” of objectives every student learns prior to leaving the current grade.   


Professional development
Programs that allow teachers or administrators to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to perform their jobs successfully. Examples may include but are not limited to workshops, seminars, videos, or other inservice activities.


Professional Learning Community (PLC)

A group of administrators and school staff within a school or system who are united in their commitment to student learning. They share a vision, work and learn collaboratively, visit and review other classrooms, and work together to improve student learning. The benefits to the staff and students include a reduced isolation of teachers, better informed and committed teachers, and academic gains for students. It is not an initiative or program but a common sense approach to organizing a school or school system.


Mastery of grade level content or the ability to do something at grade level.
Tennessee students receive scores on the TCAP test that range from "below basic" to "advanced."  The state goal is for all students to score at the "proficient" or "advanced" level.


Pull-out program
An instructional program that involves students’ receiving instruction in small groups outside of the classroom.


Pupil-teacher ratio
The total student enrollment divided by the number of full-time equivalent teachers. The pupil-teacher ratio is the most common statistic for comparing data across states. It is usually smaller than average class size because some teachers (school counselors, librarians, reading specialists, etc.) may have assignments outside the classroom.



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Race to the Top

A competitive federal grant program that provides funding for education in those states who apply and win the grant.  Through the grant requirements in Race to the Top, State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, and Title I School Improvement Grants, the Obama administration has changed the definition and approach to improving education in the United States.  Race to the Top grants are primarily funded through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds.


Regional Value Added Specialist (RVAs)

Representatives from each region in the state who have participated in state-led trainings to become specialists in the value-added concept.  These RVAs provide assistance to district-level teams and/or individual schools and serve as a resource for value-added information.



As it applies to the rigor/relevance framework, relevance refers to emphasizing skills of inquiry, problem solving, and analysis and to relating instruction to experiences of students to assist them in developing as 21st century citizens. 


Report Card (state)

A comprehensive report released annually by the Tennessee Department of Education that provides state, district, and school-level information on achievement, demographics, and discipline for grades preK-12.  On the Report Card, the Achievement report is a measure of students’ achievement (scores) on the TCAP test, while the Value-Added report is a measure of teachers’ abilities to add value to their students’ achievement.



A term that involves the scientific application of rigorous, systemic, and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to educational activities and programs.  Federal law requires schools to adopt new programs based on rigorous research that proves they are effective.


Resource teacher
A teacher who works with special education students by assisting them in regular classes or pulling them out of class for extra help.


Response to Intervention (RTI)

A process designed to help schools match student needs to research-based interventions.  Student progress is monitored on a frequent basis, and the information gained from the RTI process is used by school personnel to make decisions regarding the student’s educational program.  The process is generally divided into three “tiers” of instruction, based on the student’s need. 



The act or policy of holding students back from advancing to the next grade level if they do not meet established performance standards.



As it applies to the rigor/relevance framework, rigor is a condition of the learning environment which stretches the individual learner to move beyond his/her current “comfort zone” and grow as an independent learner.  Rigor is maintaining high academic standards and assigning tasks that involve critical thinking (i.e., advanced levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy), thereby developing students into not merely passive learners, but active thinkers and doers.


A grading or scoring system or set of guidelines used to evaluate student work. A rubric is a scoring tool that lists the criteria to be met in a piece of work or assignment. A rubric also describes levels of quality for each of the criteria. These levels of performance may be written as different ratings (e.g., excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement) or as numerical scores (e.g., 4, 3, 2, 1).



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Safe Harbor
An alternate method for a school to meet Annual Measurable Objectives if it shows progress in moving students from scoring at the "below proficient" level to the "proficient" level or above. The state, school districts, and schools may still make Adequate Yearly Progress if each subgroup that fails to reach its proficiency performance targets reduces its percentage of students not meeting standards by 10 percent of the previous year's percentage, plus the subgroup must meet the attendance rate or graduation rate targets.


Standardized Achievement Test.  Also known as the SAT Reasoning Test (formerly called Scholastic Aptitude Test), this test is widely used as a college entrance examination. Scores can be compared to state and national averages of seniors graduating from any public or private school.


Section 504 (or 504)

A section of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that protects “handicapped” individuals from discrimination based on their handicap.  Section 504 defines an “individual with a handicap” much more broadly than the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and in some circumstances provides additional rights not available under IDEA.


Socio-economically disadvantaged
Describes students whose parents participate in the federally funded free/reduced price meal program because of low family income.


Special education
Special instruction provided for students with educational or physical disabilities, tailored to each student's needs and learning style.


Standardized test
A test that is administered and scored in exactly the same way for all students (though sometimes accommodations on time limits and/or instructions may be made for students with disabilities).  Traditional standardized tests are typically mass-produced and machine-scored; they are designed to measure skills and knowledge that are thought to be taught to all students in a fairly standardized way.



Statements of what students should know and be able to demonstrate.


Standards-based report card

A report card that provides information on the specific standards (skills and knowledge) that a student is being taught and should be able to do/know at that particular grade level.  Standards-based report cards are based upon how well students are meeting state educational standards, and as such they reflect grading and reporting of student learning in terms of the standards.  This type of report card communicates to parents a true measure of the achievement status of students.  Such report cards often present students' progress differently from the traditional report card, such as listing a numerical value (on a scale of 1 to 4, for instance) as opposed to a letter grade.


State report card
An annual disclosure report for parents and the public that presents student achievement, test scores, teacher credentials, dropout rates, class sizes, resources, and other information for a school or school system.  The report card is generally released in the fall each year.


Summative assessment

Any form of testing or assessment used to evaluate and/or grade students' knowledge and understanding of particular content at the end of a set period of time, such as a semester or year or at the end of a unit of study.  Summative assessments are administered after the completion of unit or length of time in order to determine the level of skill or concept mastery and/or to meet accountability requirements.  For example, TCAP tests are summative assessments. 



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Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP)

TCAP includes all state testing at all grade levels.  Students in grades 3-8 take the TCAP Achievement Test each spring.  The test is a timed, multiple-choice assessment that measures skills in reading, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.  TCAP also includes the Writing Assessment given in late winter (usually February) in grades 5, 8, and 11, as well as the Gateway and End of Course tests administered at the secondary level.  Gateway tests (English II, Biology, and Algebra I) will be phased out in the next few years.  Beginning with those students entering ninth grade in 2009-2010, only End of Course tests will be administered.  Currently those tests will be in English I, English II, Algebra I, Biology, and U.S. History.  At least five additional End of Course tests are scheduled to be added in the coming years.


Tennessee Diploma Project (TDP)

A broad overhaul of standards and curriculum designed to challenge students and better prepare them for college and the workforce.  Tennessee is a part of a national movement to set high expectations for all students. With a focus on student success, Tennessee has joined thirty-two other states in instituting the American Diploma Project, an initiative of the non-profit, bi-partisan organization, Achieve, Inc.  The American Diploma Project is founded on the belief that students perform better when expectations are high, and the Tennessee Diploma Project is our state’s implementation of this movement.  Students beginning high school in the fall of 2009 will begin a new path with increased graduation requirements from 20 credits to 22, a focus on the skills needed for college and the workforce in an ever expanding global economy, and new assessments.


Tennessee Electronic Learning Center (TnELC) (

An electronic learning center created by the Tennessee Department of Education to give students, parents, and educators access to learning and professional development resources anytime, anywhere. Through collaboration with Apple, Inc. and the Tennessee Board of Regents, the TnELC has a dedicated site on iTunes U, an area of the iTunes Store that provides free education content. The Tennessee Electronic Learning Center is designed to enhance achievement by providing access to more than 280 curriculum-based audio and video tracks developed by the Tennessee Department of Education.  Additional resources are continually added in order to provide educators with as much support as possible in education. 


Tennessee School Improvement Program (TSIP)
A state-mandated program for elementary, middle, and secondary schools designed to improve instruction, services, school environment, and organization at school sites according to plans developed by the school administration, faculty, and other stakeholders.


A system of due process and employment guarantee for teachers. After serving a three-year probationary period, teachers are assured continued employment in the school district unless carefully defined procedures for dismissal or layoff are successfully followed.


A federal program that provides funds and services to support local school districts in efforts to improve teaching and learning for students.  This program provides these funds and services in the following areas:  teacher quality, technology, safe and drug-free schools, academic achievement for the disadvantaged, English language learners, homeless students, and students of migrant workers.



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Value-added system of accountability

A model of accountability that measures the value (or increase) added by an individual teacher to students' performance over time.  The value-added system, then, scores the teacher, not the student.  This measure is calculated through analyzing data that compares a student's test scores to the same student's scores from the previous year. The improvement in the score over what would normally be expected is considered to be the value added by the school or teacher.  Put another way, each student is expected to gain one full year of performance in each year of school.  If the student gains exactly one full year in performance (what he is expected to gain in a year of school), the value-added score will be zero (the baseline).  If the student does not gain one full year, the value-added score will be below zero (a negative number).  If the student gains more than one full year, the value-added score will be above zero (a positive number).  The higher the value-added score, the more value that is added by an individual teacher or school to the students’ performance.