Education Cheat Sheet: Decoding Assessment Jargon

Objectives, goals, formative: what do these words mean when it comes to understanding how your child is learning in school?


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After more than 20 years as a teacher and education, jargon I hear describing the latest new approaches to assessment seem oddly familiar. The reason for this may be that the educational pendulum swings every five to 10 years with educators espousing the same strategies heard before, just using different titles. This makes perfect sense, of course, because education is in a constant state of change, continually making improvements with the discovery of new knowledge and technology.


Whatever the case, the words used to label different types of assessments are often used within educational circles but can be confusing for parents. Understanding these terms can help you get a better understanding of your child’s education plans and open up conversations with his or her teacher. To get you started, here are a few words you will likely hear, or have heard. Different people may use them in different ways, but here are general definitions so you can feel comfortable joining even a group of educators in conversation.


Summative versus Formative

There are two primary types of assessments used in education: summative and formative. In general, summative assessments assess learning over a longer period of time than formative assessments. Standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT are prime examples of summative assessments. On the other hand, formative assessments tend to assess students as their learning takes form. These can be as simple as an instructor’s observations throughout a day or several days, or simple test to assess a student’s short-term memory using computer programs that tracks the growth of learning using data. Both summative and formative assessments come in many varieties, but knowing the difference between both is important when attempting to make sense of educational conversation.


Standards, Goals and Objectives

Some treat these terms as interchangeable when talking about assessments, which measure the end goal for learning. However, there are subtle differences.


  • Educational standards often focus on the acquisition of large areas of content and skills. They are usually developed by large educational organizations or professors in universities­­—the same universities that create the standardized assessments given to students via K-12 textbooks.
  • Goals tend to be used when creating units of study. What should the student learn or glean from these series of lessons? These units will include several objectives for each of the lessons found in them.
  • Objectives should be clearly outlined and align with assessments when lesson plans are effective. Within each objective, everyone should be able to easily identify the content being taught and the behavior students are expected to display when he or she is assessed at the end of the lesson. If your child is struggling, it may be a sign that the objective and assessment of the plan are not in sync. When facing this predicament, the best thing to do is to talk with your child’s teacher.


Whether assessments are formative, summative, or are packaged in terms like standards, goals, and objectives, understanding assessment jargon can do more than help you follow educational conversations; it can guide to you the best way for your child to learn.


Glenn Medeiros is the president of Saint Louis School. Since he was a child, he dreamed of becoming an educator and after traveling the world as a singer and songwriter, he taught elementary and high school, earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership from the University of Southern California, taught as an assistant professor in education at Chaminade University and joined Saint Louis School as president in 2015.