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How can formative assessment foster learning as schools reopen?

This blog was originally posted on the UNICEF blog website and can be found here:


During COVID-19 related school closures, at least 463 million children had no access to remote learning (digital or TV/Radio). This crisis not only affects overall learning levels, but increases gaps, with the learning of children from disadvantaged households more deeply affected.

Children from disadvantaged households miss learning opportunities because they lack access to remotely delivered instructional content. Children in poorer households are less likely to access computers and the internet, as well as TV, radio, or smartphones. For instance, 2.2 billion – or 2 in 3 children and young people aged 25 years or less – do not have internet access at home.

In some contexts, disadvantaged parents are less engaged in their children’s learning. During school closings, children are more dependent on the academic support they receive from their parents, which some may not be able to provide. The pandemic may have, however, led parents of all backgrounds to provide more support.

The pandemic has led to uncertainty and disruption. 39 billion in-school meals have been missed during school closures and an estimated 150 million more children were pushed into poverty. This economic crisis, coupled with children’s absence from school and reduced access to services offered through schools, may have increased children’s work. Children who work tend to also be disadvantaged in their learning in school.

Even before COVID, the global “learning crisis” was well acknowledged. In many parts of the world, even after five years of schooling, a majority of children could not read a basic text fluently or do simple arithmetic. Pre-crisis, an estimated 53 per cent of children were in “learning poverty” – they could not understand a simple text by the age of 10. It is expected that COVID is leading to an additional 10 per cent of children in learning poverty

Even within the same setting, prolonged school closures likely had differential impacts on children of different backgrounds. On top of existing inequalities, the pandemic likely worsened the situation, especially for children whose learning levels were already weak. The above-mentioned factors increase learning gaps, even within the same classroom, which means teachers will face students at different starting points when schools reopen. In response to this challenge and to accelerate the recovery process, it is important for teachers to understand the performance level of students when they return to the classroom in order to design lesson plans appropriate to the students’ current needs.

The best tool to achieve this is formative assessment, which helps both teachers and students by giving them feedback about how individual learning is progressing. Formative assessment is a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student achievement.

Prior to COVID-19, initiatives by UNICEF, Pratham (an innovative learning organization created to improve the quality of education in India) and others successfully used formative assessment:

  • In a UNICEF supported program in Assam, India, Pratham worked in partnership with the government schools in Sonitpur district. In 2019, in 200 schools, over 60 days (an hour a day), simple assessment showed that the proportion of children who were able to at least read a simple paragraph increased from 17 percent to 28 percent for Grade 3 children. In Grade 5, the percentage of “readers” went from 45 per cent to 56 per cent.
  • In Papua, Indonesia, UNICEF programming focused on improving early grade reading, using formative assessments to tailor teaching to children’s needs. This yielding a 12 per cent increase in reading comprehension and a 36 per cent decrease in the proportion of non-readers.
  • In Ethiopia, UNICEF’s Assessment for Learning improved teachers’ knowledge of continuous assessment, leading them to reinvent their teaching: they subsequently spent more time actively assessing students, as opposed to lecturing, managing the classroom, or on tasks unrelated to learning. Classroom observations revealed better use of continuous assessment. Communications between teachers and parents increased. Finally, there was substantial positive impact on learning in mother tongue and Mathematics.
  • In Afghanistan, a creative approach to formative assessment involved children using hand signals to answer the teacher’s questions. This is promising, particularly for resource-constrained contexts where other modalities of formative assessment may not be feasible.

All this accumulated experience is proving useful now that formative assessment is more necessary than ever. When schools reopen, these tools are essential for identifying children’s learning levels, and to design remediation, compensation, catch up and accelerated programmes accordingly.

In Mongolia, after schools were closed from February to September 2020, affecting over 600,000 children, the first month of the new term focused on assessment of learning and remedial lessons and activities. UNICEF supported development and distribution of teacher guidelines for remedial classes covering all core subjects from pre-primary to upper secondary. Teachers used the first classes for formative assessments to gauge children’s learning, and remedial classes were then adapted to the children’s specific needs. Earlier, UNICEF found that most Mongolian children wanted catch-up opportunities. These classes responded to children’s feedback, aiming to reduce stress and anxiety, and letting students ease back into their learning routines. Teachers’ feedback indicated that remedial classes were much needed and helpful, but more time was needed to fully address gaps.

Global map of school closures caused by COVID-19

In Madagascar, national scale up of their summer catch-up programme is being adapted to kick off school reopening, incorporating formative assessment. A similar UNICEF-supported program in Uzbekistan combined remediation and long-term reorientation of instruction, with a focus on teaching at the level of students. It identified priority learning outcomes and success criteria; assessed learning loss and knowledge gaps, favouring methods enabling automated results calculations; and designed catch-up plans for students with the greatest learning gaps. The most experienced teachers led the individual or group catch up sessions. Programme Guidelines have been disseminated across the country.

In two provinces, Sri Lanka modelled return-to-school remediation packages including formative assessment, curriculum adaptation, and support for training around individualized learning. Similarly, formative assessment tools developed in Bangladesh and Malawi will also support school reopenings.

Much remains to be done. Now more than ever, policy makers must prioritize support to teachers to strengthen their capacity to effectively use assessment. That is why Pratham and UNICEF are currently exploring ways to collaborate in promoting the use of formative assessment in classrooms around the world. Stay tuned…