We need formative assessment now more than ever


Assessment is always a contentious issue, with ongoing debates about methods, uses and implications. Formative and summative assessment are often pitched against each other, with summative concerns driving the taught curriculum and formative focusing more on individual progress. Of course, all education systems need both assessment to support and to summarise progress. With schools closed across the world, both purposes of assessment are currently difficult to implement, but which should be the priority when schools return?  This article argues that to make the most of the time back in school, the focus should be on using formative assessment to support learning.

Our current situation is unique, making it difficult to predict the implications of the pandemic on children’s learning. However, there has been a lot of research in the past on ‘summer learning loss’, especially in those countries with long summer holidays. There is general agreement in seasonal learning research that attainment may slow or decline during long periods of school closures, but there is little consensus on the extent of summer learning loss, which differs in each study. To take account of the variability in research results, Kuhfeld and Tarasawa (2020) made projections for a small impact ‘Covid-slowdown’ and a larger impact ‘Covid-slide’. The Covid-slowdown projection showed learning effectively paused at school closure, with any teaching gains which would normally have been made in the final term, largely cancelled out by summer holiday losses. However, the Covid-slide modelling was a little more sobering, with a projected drop of 30 per cent in reading and nearer 50 per cent in maths. 

The Education Endowment Foundation (2020) focused its rapid evidence survey on the effect of school closures on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their analysis suggests that such children are more likely to experience a Covid-slide, with the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers widening by a median estimate of 36 per cent (arising from a spread of 11 per cent to 75 per cent due to the substantial differences between studies). Of course, all of these projections are based on typical summer learning loss, so cannot take into account the potential mitigating effect of online learning, or the potentially damaging economic and traumatic effects of the pandemic.

The Chartered College of Teaching’s research evidence review concluded that learning will be adversely affected by extended school closures and that this is likely to affect disadvantaged children from lower income families to a greater degree (Müller and Goldenberg, 2020). In addition, these children may have less access to devices and parental support for online learning, together with facing other challenges like increased poverty and food insecurity (Montacute, 2020). Such widespread concern of an increasing disadvantage gap may galvanise us into action, but what should we prioritise when children return to school?  

Decades of international research points to formative assessment as key to supporting children’s learning (for example, Black and Wiliam (1998), Black et al. (2004), Gardner et al. (2010)). However, this is not a bolt-on list of tasks, it is embedded assessment as an integral part of teaching and learning which demands careful listening and flexible planning. Formative assessment is about clarity of teaching aims, elicitation to identify pupil ideas, providing ongoing feedback and actively engaging pupils and their peers in thinking about their learning (Wiliam, 2018; Earle, 2019). Prioritising responsive teaching, rather than detailed advanced planning or multiple summative checks, will direct the focus on to the learning and help us to be flexible in a time of ongoing change.

Formative assessment directs us to consider our expectations of prior learning. There is always a spread of prior learning and experience within a class, so one could argue that when children return to school, this will not be that different to starting any other new term. However, this global pandemic has led to unprecedented experiences for us all and so we will need to consider what has changed for us and our students. We will need to examine our own expectations about what children will or will not have experienced before. For example, there may be chunks of the curriculum that have not been taught, been partially taught, switched to online (so only accessed by some) etc. We can do a certain amount of mapping to identify gaps in coverage, but ongoing disruption and individual circumstances regarding shielding or access to online learning means that learning experiences will be more disparate than ever, making elicitation a key teaching tool.

Some may be wondering (or worrying!) that I am advocating individual education plans for each child, but this is clearly not possible or sustainable. I am also not suggesting long-term ‘catch up’ plans, with missed units slotted into non-existent gaps in later year groups. What I am proposing is that more attention be paid to ongoing formative assessment. For example, when embarking on a new unit of work, we cannot make assumptions about children’s prior understanding of concepts which would normally have been covered the year before. Formative assessment should provide opportunities for children to show us what they know and can do, eliciting their knowledge, understanding and skills in order that we are able to identify misconceptions and consider how to support the next steps in their learning. 

The seasonal learning studies tell us little about whether the learning is lost and needing to be re-taught, or just ‘rusty’ and in need of a little revision (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020, p. 70). Eliciting children’s ideas through discussion, a short quiz or drawings, for example, helps them to remember and make connections to prior learning, so can be a learning opportunity in itself. Such formative assessment strategies are useful for the teacher during the unit of work, so that they can inform further discussion and follow-up activities. Long quizzes or tests which seek to identify gaps across a wide range of topics are less useful because they cannot all be acted upon and may demotivate the children at a time when they are transitioning back into school.

Formative assessment needs to be open enough so that children have the opportunity to ‘surprise’ us, showing us what they know and do not know. Some may have carried out extensive home learning projects of their own, or developed a range of ‘life skills’ like cooking, gardening or setting up Zoom meetings with their grandparents, which have provided them with experiences they can now draw upon to enrich school learning – whilst others may have been in families where the focus was on survival, keeping safe, using foodbanks or parents’ work commitments. Every child’s experience of the pandemic will have been different and returning to school learning may take differing amounts of time.

Predictions of a Covid-slide, particularly for disadvantaged children, accentuates the importance of effective teaching practices. This article argues that use of formative assessment, as an integral part of teaching to support learning, is time well spent.

Key questions for you and colleagues

  • Which children in your class are likely to have had a Covid-slide rather than a Covid-slowdown?
  • Which key topics were not taught in school, which act as important precursors to later learning?
  • Which age- and subject-appropriate formative assessment strategies could you use to find out about what your children already know and can do?



Black P and Wiliam D (1998) Inside the Black Box. London: GL Assessment.

Black P, Harrison C, Lee C, et al. (2004) Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan 86(1): 8–21. Available at: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ705962 (accessed 5 June 2020).

Earle S (2019) Assessment in the Primary Classroom: Principles and Practice. London: Learning Matters, SAGE.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid evidence assessment. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-resources/best-evidence-on-impact-of-school-closures-on-the-attainment-gap/ (accessed 3 June 2020).

Gardner J, Harlen W, Hayward L, et al. (2010) Developing Teacher Assessment. Maidenhead: OUP.

Kuhfeld M and Tarasawa B (2020) The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. Collaborative for Student Growth: Brief. Available at: https://www.nwea.org/blog/2018/summer-learning-loss-what-we-know-what-were-learning/ (accessed 2 June 2020).

Montacute R (2020) Social mobility and Covid-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality. Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-and-Social-Mobility-1.pdf (accessed 2 June 2020).

Müller LM and Goldenberg G (2020) Education in times of crisis: The potential implications of school closures for teachers and students. Available at: https://chartered.college/2020/05/07/chartered-college-publishes-report-into-potential-implications-of-school-closures-and-global-approaches-to-education/ (accessed 2 June 2020).

Wiliam D (2018) Embedded Formative Assessment (2nd ed). Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How is ‘covid-slide’ affecting your students or how might it?

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3 months ago

Totally agree. The Graduated Approach (Assess, Plan, Do, Review), which is common in special needs teaching, fits well with this. We also need to do more to integrate online tools throughout the whole process. There is a need to move away from fixed point summative assessments and towards a system which tracks progress against milestones – with divergent pathways at intervals at secondary level. High quality feedback is essential at all levels.