9 Tricky Education Terms You Should Understand

9 Tricky Education Terms You Should Understand

9 Tricky Education Terms You Should Understand

group of illustrated characters connected by wire

Learning standards. Kindergarten readiness. Achievement gap. Personalized learning. Universal preschool. Can you define the terms buzzing around the education world? Jargon can be overwhelming—even for the experts. And language can be further complicated by disagreements on (or misunderstandings of) what terms mean, politics, and different definitions that depend on context.

Whether you’re an educator or education expert, a parent or family member of a student, or a voter hoping to learn more about local schools, a clear understanding of education terms, and the issues surrounding them, can help in many ways.

As education experts ourselves, QIP employees encounter a lot of jargon, much of which has the potential to cause confusion. Here are a few tricky education terms we’ve seen lately, along with descriptions of what they mean—and don’t mean.

person at edge of cliff

Achievement Gap

The achievement gap is differences in academic performance or attainment between different groups of students and can be applied to many kinds of student groupings. Some think of the difference between white and minority students, but it can also refer to differences in family income, sex, English language learner status, country, or another dimension. In addition, some assume the gap is based on test scores, but graduation and dropout rates or college enrollment and completion rates also describe educational attainment.

students and a magnifying glass


Assessment is the act of evaluating something. Many who see the term think of summative assessments such as state testing or end-of-course testing intended to gauge student learning and proficiency. However, the term can refer to many types of evaluation, such as diagnostic testing, writing assignments, and informal observation. Teachers use formative assessments—tools that help identify learning gaps, such as quizzes, presentations, and projects—every day. (See also the definition of formative assessment here.) Regardless, some teachers, parents, and other education stakeholders have concerns about the required testing of students (and, in many places, the required evaluation of teachers based on testing results). This can result in negative feelings about the word assessment. While the ways in which students and teachers are assessed is an important topic, it is essential to understand that assessment plays an important and necessary role in teaching and learning. Assessment reveals whether and how much progress is being made, which is valuable information for educators, students, and families.

kindergarten students
magnifying glass icon and other related icons

Learning Standards

Learning standards are a set of concepts and skills, commonly recognized by a wide variety of professionals, that students are expected to learn by a certain point in their education progression—for instance, fourth-graders should learn x, y, and z before entering fifth grade. Learning standards are not a curriculum or assessment; they are a guide that educators use when creating curricula and assessments, and teachers can help students master learning standards in many ways. Every state adopts learning standards, and sometimes districts add to those required by their state. But when each state has its own learning standards, students in states with lower standards can struggle upon moving to a new state or entering college. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is an effort to make learning standards consistent across many states. This not only serves students moving to a new school or college, but also allows for better comparisons between states. States that have adopted the CCSS can use the same electronic standardized assessments to measure students’ progression, making accurate comparisons possible.

illustration of four students

Personalized Learning

Instead of offering the same instruction, assignments, and assessments to every student, an educator using personalized learning works to customize these for students based on individual needs. Personalized learning can sometimes be confused with blended learning (using both in-person and online teaching) or project-based learning (teaching learning standards via a project). Both blended learning and project-based learning can be used as aspects of personalized learning. There are also countless other ways to offer students a personalized learning experience, and the term does not refer to any specific program or method. In fact, there is no one definition of personalized learning or how it can be offered to students. Some critics see personalized learning as a threat to the standardization of learning, because not all students are getting the same learning experience. Critics might also view personalized learning as a logistical issue for teachers who may wonder how they have the time or resources to individualize lessons for each of their students. When implementing personalized learning, it is important to pay attention to communication with stakeholders so everyone has a common understanding.

computer screen


Proficiency in education is best known as a measure of students’ understanding of a subject, usually expressed as a result, or score, of an assessment. Currently all states use standardized testing to determine whether students are meeting academic standards as well as whether schools, districts, and states effectively help students to do so. Proficiency levels are set by the state as the tests are developed; certain score ranges indicate that a student is proficient, or not, in a learning standard or subject. State assessments and their levels of proficiency are not comparable. Most of these assessments and their measures of proficiency are “high-stakes,” meaning that the results could affect a student’s progression to the next grade or course, and a teacher, school, district, or state could be judged on the results of their students’ scores.

students near a board that says "success"


This term refers to a grade of excellence—that is, how good something is. The quality of something (such as an education program) can be subjective and difficult to define. It is incorrect to assume that one person’s definition of "high quality" is the same as everyone else’s; understanding of the concept may vary widely. Thus, an assertion about “high-quality schools” is ambiguous without an accompanying definition of what the word quality means.

person at a computer with a shocked face, and then a happy face


The term retention can have nearly opposite implications depending on its use. In elementary and secondary education, the term refers to holding a student back a grade, which often has a negative connotation. In higher education, it refers to students staying in school (being “retained” by the college or university) and working toward a degree instead of dropping out, which has a positive connotation.

illustration of students in preschool

Universal Preschool

Universal preschool is the idea that public dollars could be used to offer preschool to any families who would like to use it. In the debates over universal preschool, some misconceptions have been that it means preschool would be required for all children or that one standard preschool curriculum would be in place; neither are part of this idea.

collage of computer, books, globe, and question mark

Additional Resources

Readers interested in disentangling education jargon may also find the following resources, both of which QIP have supported, helpful:

Education and Career Pathways: Data Standards
QIP in a Word