Test, Examination, Evaluation, Assessment – What’s the Diff?

Within an Individualized Education Program (IEP), these three terms are used throughout the document, the meetings, and between parents and teachers. Do they differ in meaning? If so, what is the difference?


First, let’s look at each word’s Etymology (its origin and how it has changed through history).

Test originated in the 1590s, meaning “trial or examination to determine the correctness of something.”

Examination originated in the 1610s, meaning “test of knowledge.”

Evaluation originated in 1755, meaning “action of appraising or valuing.”

Assessment originated most recently of all of the terms, in 1956. It was, and is, used in education jargon to mean “determination of value.”

Current Use

According to Thesaurus.com, test, examination, evaluation, and assessment are synonyms; by definition, these words can be used interchangeably. However, there are slight differences in their common uses. Assessment is sometimes used to determine the right or wrongness of something, as well as its value. Thus, the term assessment has come to mean a set of evaluations to determine how a child is performing.

Why does it matter?

When talking to a parent, teacher, or anyone else about a child’s IEP, make sure that you understand how they are using these terms. Most of the time you can substitute the word you like best and makes the most sense to you, but you may find someone who wants to use these terms in specific ways. Don’t stress about it. Ask them how they are defining the terms. If you don’t find anything at fault with their definitions, use them. This will help avoid power or word struggles in meetings.

What is important when it comes to these ideas and their relation to the IEP?

It is important that a child receives a thorough test/examination/evaluation/assessment during the initial eligibility process and, if needed, at every triennial. A thorough assessment should cover cognitive functioning (determined by an IQ test) and grade level performance. Other tests are added based upon the needs of the student. The IEP team should meet to decide what tests will be given to the student. Decisions should be made based upon the information required to determine the services the child needs. Is the child struggling emotionally? Is she having trouble reading? Are his grades suffering because of his inability to pay attention? Questions like these will help determine what tests will most benefit the child and their education.

Remember that a test without any analysis is not very useful in developing the IEP. Let’s look at an example. Here are four test scores on four different tests. The average score on the tests is 10.

Test 1 - 10

Test 2 – 8

Test 3 – 2

Test 4 – 12

From that information, you can tell that the student was average on Test 1, a little below average on Test 2, way below average on Test 3, and a little above average on Test 4. Without understanding what the purpose of these tests were, what the scores tell you about how the student learns, what the scores tell you about the accommodations or modifications the child may need based upon the scores, then these scores are meaningless for determining the child’s needs.

 What role do the different IEP team members have in making sure that the analysis helps understand the child better?

If you are the evaluator, remember that you are writing the results for the untrained. The educators and parents reading your analysis have not been trained in understanding the results of the test. Help them understand what the results mean and how they reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the child. Point out where the child will have difficulty and where their strengths can help them compensate for their deficits.

If you are a general education teacher, the analysis of the evaluations will help you know how to help the child in the classroom. As an educational representative of the IEP team, you will typically get the results of the evaluations before the parents. If you don’t understand what the results of the tests mean about the child’s ability to learn, neither will the parents. Point this out to the evaluator and ask them to include more of an explanation of what the test results mean to the child’s ability to learn. See the advice to evaluators in the above paragraph for information to look for in the analysis..

As a parent, don’t just accept what the school provides if it makes no sense to you. You are not an expert in these tests and should not be expected to know what the results mean for your child. If you are unclear about what a result means for your child’s learning, ask the evaluator. If the evaluator does not provide information that helps you better understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses, here are 3 things you can do:

  • Ask for the district’s expert in that particular evaluation to provide a better explanation.
  • Ask for an independent evaluation. This independent evaluation must be conducted by an independent contractor, paid for by the school district. You have to agree to the independent contractor that the school district recommends. Check them out! If you cannot find any information about them, call a special education attorney’s office and ask them for a recommendation.
  • Hire a parent advocate or a special education attorney to help you interpret the results and make sure that the analysis is well thought-out and documented.

Whether you are a parent, educator, or someone else on the IEP team, remember the only reason to conduct evaluations is to get a better picture of how the child learns. If the analysis of the results do not help the IEP team better understand the child’s needs, the time, money, and effort spent on the evaluations is wasted. This a waste of our precious educational resources and a waste of an opportunity to educate this child. No child’s education should be wasted!