Teaching in a post-Covid world: six principles for designing back to school assessments

As schools reopen, we set out recommendations for assesments to determine student capability in low-and middle-income countries.


The covid-19 pandemic is the single largest event to have affected children globally in their access to school in recent times; estimates suggest that over 85% of the world’s total enrolled learners, 1.5 billion children and youths, have been affected. Prolonged school closures threaten to undo progress made in access and learning in a single, ubiquitous, sweep, particularly for the most marginalised children. This has been illustrated in studies of school closures following shocks such as Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea and earthquakes in Pakistan. Some estimates suggest that three months out of school could put learning back by as much as a full year, with prolonged absence from school affecting some children’s ability to return to school at all.

Discussions have so far largely focused on how to measure this learning loss. As schools prepare to reopen, we need to think carefully about how education systems can be supported in reducing, and ultimately reversing, this loss. To mitigate the loss of learning, teachers need more than a precise measure of the magnitude of the challenge - they need to understand the current state of their students’ learning, in relation to the expectations they would place on a class/student at a comparable point in the school year.

Linking pupil performance to teaching practice

One useful investment will be in equipping teachers with the ability to make an evidence-based decision on where to start with their classes and students once schools reopen. This can take the form of a package of resources that will allow teachers to assess where their class or individual students are relative to the curriculum, thereby providing guidance on where to resume instruction. This package would consist of carefully structured and simple to administer assessments in core subjects, that show how to link the results to immediate and longer term classroom practices. The utility of such a resource rests on the assumption that teachers are empowered to adjust their teaching to meet their students’ needs and do not face pressures to continue to ‘cover’ the curriculum if it’s not required.

Back-to-school assessment resources will need to be developed with the following principles in mind:

  1. Respond to national priorities: Decisions about which skill areas or subjects to target will need to be made, keeping in mind country-specific priorities post school closures. In the primary grades, the choices will likely be language and numeracy, with secondary schools focusing on additional subjects. In other instances, governments may not yet have given clear guidance about what schools should prioritise as they reopen; in such cases the development of the assessment resource can help start that essential conversation.
  2. Support, not inhibit, teachers: Teachers may be overburdened with large class sizes and ambitious curriculum demands, and will face additional pressures as schools resume, including greater responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of their students. Any resources offered to them should help ease these pressures by being practical, easy to implement, and accessible for teachers with different competencies. Arduous assessment administration or reporting requirements will be counter-productive, reducing teaching time further.
  3. Adapt to local capacity: Teacher quality is heterogeneous across and within schools. In the context of covid-19, governments are restricted in their capacity to resource and organise direct support for teachers. Therefore, the assessment resource should be short, simple, well-structured and easy to administer with low support needs.
  4. Link clearly to teacher practice: The resource must be mapped to the prioritised curriculum, so that teachers can clearly identify which topics within the curriculum to focus on, based on student performance assessments.
  5. Time is of the essence: A highly polished instrument will be of no practical value if it reaches teachers weeks after schools have reopened and they have already made decisions about what to do. Resources must be mobilised quickly so that assessments and associated material reaches schools quickly.
  6. Be clear about the purpose of such resources: The resources will not meet the technical requirements of large-scale testing – their role is to support immediate classroom level decisions about teaching. As such, it is important not to extrapolate the results of these assessments to make claims about national learning gaps or international comparisons.

Such resources will help all teachers to adjust their teaching to their students’ needs, whether for the additional support provided by remedial programmes, or for the regular classroom. For governments that are now planning for school reopening, this requires some quick decision-making and effective communication.

Oxford Policy Management is supporting assessment and education reform in Myanmar, where students will have lost a minimum of 20% of their classroom instruction time due to school closures. Teachers in Myanmar use textbooks as the curriculum, systematically teaching from page to page.  Under their current national education reform, the new curriculum includes new teacher guides with scripted lesson plans. However, what the teachers need help answering now is which lesson plan to start once they are back at school for their first lesson? This would be week eight lessons the textbook assumes at this point in a usual year.  

In reality, the best place to resume teaching is likely to vary across schools and across classrooms within the same school. Back-to-school assessments along the six principles outlined above can help answer these questions and equip teachers with the information they need to make the best decisions for their students – and ultimately, mitigate against the loss of learning.

By Zara Majeed, Esther Care, and Reg Allen. Based on conversations with members of the Assessment and Education Reform Support (AERS) programme team in Myanmar.

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