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Edu-Speak: The Terms You Need to Understand What’s Happening in School Today

As the season of parent-teacher conferences draws near, you may be wondering if you are going to understand everything your child’s teacher has to say. As parents, we know how important it is to be engaged in our children’s education, but how can we be involved if we don’t speak the same language as the teachers?

When it comes to jargon, few fields can top education.

To help you cope, here’s a brief guide to the ever-evolving lingo of the classroom. Use it to facilitate genuine communication between you and your child’s teacher.

Ability grouping Separating students into groups based on their ability; often used synonymously with the term “tracking.”

Accountability – A policy that holds districts, schools or students responsible for their performance. School and district accountability often means rating schools or districts according to student performance, and rewarding or punishing them based on improvement over time. Student accountability refers to holding students responsible for their own performance by requiring them to pass a test to be promoted or to graduate.

Assessment – The measurement of a student’s skills or knowledge in a subject area. “Alternative assessment” or “performance assessment” generally refer to any form of gauging students’ knowledge other than through conventional standardized tests. These include assessments requiring students to apply their knowledge in hands-on tasks, such as writing an essay, conducting a science experiment or creating portfolios.

Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) – A condition characterized by the inability to concentrate. Between 3 percent and 10 percent of U.S. school-age children are thought to have ADD. Many of these children qualify for special-education services. Children who are also hyperactive or impulsive may be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD).

Bilingual education – An education program for non-native English speakers. Children spend part of the school day receiving instruction in their native language, with the goal of moving them into mainstream English classes, normally within two or three years. See also Boosting Your Child's Foreign Language Skills.

Charter schools – Publicly funded schools that operate independently of local school boards and promote innovative teaching methods and curricula. Groups such as teachers, parents or foundations run them.

Cooperative learning – A teaching method in which students of varying abilities and interests work together in small groups on a specific task or project. Students complete assignments together and receive a common grade.

Criterion-referenced tests – Tests that measure a student’s performance based on a set body of content or subject matter. Scores are reported for individual students. The tests measure how thoroughly each individual child knows a subject and do not compare his results to how well others have learned it (see “Norm-referenced tests”). Tests that match state standards (standards-based tests) are criterion-referenced tests.

Curriculum – The subject matter that teachers and students cover in class, as well as the educational outcomes for students, usually described as goals or objectives. For example, a goal of the curriculum might be to have students become skilled at writing concise paragraphs.



Dyslexia – A reading impairment, thought to be a genetic condition, which affects up to 10 percent of the nation’s school children. Traits of dyslexia include transposing (flipping the order of) letters, difficulty recognizing letters or numbers and poor handwriting. See also Learning Disabilities Defined.

EL – English learners. Previously known as LEP (limited English-proficient) and ELL (English language learners), EL refers to students who are still learning English.

Enrichment – Programs originally designed for gifted children, but now widely used with at-risk children as well. They are intended to supplement the regular academic curriculum for students who might otherwise be bored with their class work.

Gifted students – Pupils who have the ability to achieve beyond the norm, identified either by their IQ scores, their demonstrated skill in the classroom, or both. Once limited to academic skills, the definition of giftedness in many schools is expanding to include children with a wide variety of talents. See also Acceleration in Education.

High-stakes tests – Tests used as the only criterion to make an important decision for a student or school. The test score may be used to decide whether a student graduates or a school is subject to harsh consequences, such as replacing the leadership and much of the staff. See also Get Smart About Testing.

Inclusion – The educational practice based on the philosophy that all children, regardless of their special needs, can and should be educated together in the same classroom. This means that students who receive special education services enroll in general education classes, while they continue to receive support from the special education teacher.

IQ – Abbreviation for “intelligence quotient,” which is supposed to reflect a person’s mental capacities. IQ tests have become controversial in recent years because critics claim they measure only a narrow band of intellectual strengths, primarily “school smarts.” Others claim the tests are biased against members of some minority groups.

Learning disability – A lifelong disorder affecting how individuals with normal or above-average intelligence select, retain and express information. The criteria for having a learning disability vary from state to state, but in general the term is used to describe a discrepancy between a child’s intelligence and academic achievement. See also Dealing with Learning Differences.

Magnet schools – Publicly funded and governed schools that bring in students from outside the local neighborhood to reduce or eliminate racial imbalance. These schools place a special emphasis on academic achievement or on a particular field, such as science, mathematics, arts or computer science.

Manipulative – A physical object that can be used to represent or model a problem situation or develop a mathematical concept. Manipulatives could be pegboards, blocks, sticks, coins, etc.

Multicultural education – A school curriculum that offers activities and themes that teach children respect for diversity and exposes them to a variety of perspectives.



No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 – On Jan. 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the most sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) since it was enacted in 1965. It redefines the federal role in K to 12 education in an effort to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. It is based on four principles: stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven to work.

Norm-referenced tests – Tests that compare the performance of an individual student to the performance of a nationally representative group of students. Scores are reported on a bell curve, meaning that 50 percent of the students who take the test fall below average and 50 percent fall above.

Open classroom – A classroom that has a flexible, activity-centered environment, allowing children to move to different parts of the room for different learning activities.

Phonics – A method of teaching reading by “sounding out” letters to form words. See also Reading Resource Center

Portfolio – An organized collection of a student’s work throughout a course or school year. Grades are based on this packet of materials, which measures the student’s knowledge and skills and often includes some form of self-reflection by the student.

Pull-out program – A program that removes a student from the regular classroom setting for one or more sessions a week to see an education specialist.

Special education – Programs designed to serve children with mental and physical disabilities. Such children are entitled to individualized education plans (IEPs) that spell out the services they need to reach their educational goals, ranging from speech therapy to math tutoring.

Standards – Clear statements about what students should know and be able to do in certain subject areas and at certain stages in their education. While most people agree that academic standards of public schools need to be raised, there is national debate over how to implement such standards, how prescriptive they should be and whether they should be national or local, voluntary or mandated. Most states and districts now have standards in place for the core academic subjects.

Standardized tests – Assessments that are administered and scored in exactly the same way for all students. Usually, these are mass-produced and machine-scored tests created by private testing services. “Standardized” has nothing to do with “standards,” and does not mean that the tests are aligned with the standards. See also Get Smart About Testing.



Title 1 – Created in 1965, Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides extra resources to schools and school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty. These are areas in which academic performance tends to be low and the obstacles to improving performance are the greatest.

Title IX – Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars gender discrimination in education facilities that receive federal funding. Title IX cases, which historically have been filed at the college level, have increasingly been filed against K to 12 schools for gender equity in extracurricular sports.

Vouchers – A document, usually issued by the state, which parents can use to pay tuition at an out-of-district public school, a private school and/or a religious school. The term is also used more broadly to describe school-choice proposals in which states help pay tuition for children attending private or religious schools.

Whole language – A philosophy and instructional strategy that emphasizes reading for meaning and in context. Although teachers may give phonics lessons to individual students as needed, the emphasis is on teaching students to look at the wholeness of words and text. See also Whole Language.

Learn More...

  • Who's Who in Your Child's School
  • How to Make the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences
  • What Every Parent Should Know About Alternative Approaches to Education

    Judy Molland is United Parenting Publications’ education editor.
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