Imagine you’re the fleet manager for a logistics company. You know the exact destination for each of your trucks, and when they need to make their deliveries. You also know what region of the country the trucks are departing from, but you’re not sure what city they’re in, or in which direction they are pointed. What’s more: There are 50 of these trucks, all parked in different, unknown intersections.

This is what teachers experience when they try to move students toward learning goals without the most essential piece of information—where their students are right now on the learning progression. Using assessment-informed instruction (AII) in the classroom can serve as a teacher’s GPS, generating the information needed to identify where students are and how best to move them to their intended destination.

While the foundational thinking of AII can be traced to the 1960s, and the importance of formative assessment (i.e., in-process evaluations of student needs and progress) was championed in high-income countries increasingly in the 1990s, only since the early 2000s has the use of assessment to inform instruction in lower- and middle-income countries gained momentum. Today, education systems across the globe are institutionalizing monthly and weekly formal checks of foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) skills. Donors are prioritizing formative assessment in FLN interventions as implementers try to develop that unicorn approach—formative assessments that are feasible in low-resource settings, time efficient, and easy to administer while also providing useful information that teachers can use when planning lessons and targeting support to students.

Though there is a dearth of rigorous evidence on the impact of AII intervention models in low- and middle-income countries, AII is widely considered a promising practice that can be helpful in improving learning outcomes for struggling students. Formative assessment approaches to inform instruction are featured in the Global Reading Network’s Critical Topics Series and in the ALIGNS approaches laid out in the RISE Insights Series; and indicators of formative assessment are incorporated in the World Bank’s Teach Observer Manual. International nongovernmental organizations have been equally busy. For example, for more than a decade, Pratham and J-PAL have tested approaches to teaching at the right level, while Room to Read and Chemonics have piloted and scaled the LEGRA approach to formative reading assessment in Rwanda and RTI International has developed the Tangerine:Teach phone and tablet-based classroom assessment tool.

To capture lessons and recommendations from early evidence on AII, RTI and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have partnered to produce two guides on assessment-informed instruction. This is the first of two guides on AII. The second guide, AII at the systems level, focuses on how teaching and learning can be measured formatively and summative across entire levels of the education system to inform policy and programming, and is also available. This first guide, on AII at the classroom level, is discussed in this blog and focuses on the AII process and how teachers can be supported in taking specific actions in response to information generated through assessment.

What are we asking teachers to know and do?

The short answer – a lot. To effectively assess for learning, teachers need an understanding of different formative assessment tools, how to use them, and the types of information each generates. Teachers who may be new to AII should be presented simple, organized methods for tracking student performance. At more advanced levels of using assessment to inform instruction, teachers need support to scaffold questioning to increasing levels of critical thinking and to create opportunities for peer and self-assessment. They also need grouping, remediation, and differentiation strategies for responding to this information.

In applying these tools and strategies, teachers may employ a structured approach to planning assessments and instruction, considering these four guiding questions from Lorna Earl and Steven Katz:

  1. Why am I assessing?
  2. What am I assessing?
  3. What methods of assessment should I use to collect evidence of student learning?
  4. How can I use the information from this assessment, and when will I do this?

Another critical element for implementing AII that is sometimes overlooked is establishing a supportive classroom climate and culture, with clear norms and management procedures. Students must feel safe and encouraged to guess and give wrong answers, and teachers must feel that they have adequate control of their classroom in order to test new AII approaches.

Simple, right? This dizzying list of necessary skills and competencies easily constitutes a year of pre-service training at the most well-equipped teacher’s colleges. This may be why uptake of AII in the classroom has been relatively slow-going in many settings.

From a teacher’s perspective, the benefits of AII may not be reflected immediately in the summative, systems level exams they are frequently told matter most. Depending on the culture of schooling, using informal, ad hoc, or game-based formative assessment tools may be frowned upon by parents and school leaders.  We need to also consider that many teachers haven’t seen any kind of explicit data use in the classroom. Generating, interpreting, and responding to student data, all while attempting to cover dense curricula in overcrowded classrooms, with students speaking multiple first languages, would seem an extraordinary task to undertake, when you haven’t seen clear evidence of the benefits.  

So much behavior change, so many challenges… how can we support teachers?

A teacher in Ethiopia stands in front of a blackboard and is delivering a lesson to the children in the classroom.Teachers, like all of us, are more likely to try something new if it is approachable and offers some freedom of choice, with a clear path to success. As such, it is critical that interventions integrate AII strategies as part of existing teaching processes and that through school leadership, we support and encourage teachers to test, adapt, and make decisions about the formative assessment tools that work for them. Just as we are asking teachers to meet students at the right level, we must identify where teachers are in using formative assessment, and design interventions that provide the appropriate supports at multiple levels of AII implementation.  This Science of Teaching guide, Assessment-Informed Instruction: Classroom Level, presents a continuum of AII implementation, with recommended interventions for each “tier” of AII demonstrated.

For teachers with limited AII experience, we should design interventions that focus on simple techniques to get teachers started and on evidence-sharing that emphasizes AII’s value and generates enthusiasm. For example, a small dose of fun, simple, and interactive formative assessment games could be included in materials and facilitated multiple times by other teachers in a training. Through coaching and communities of practice, teachers could share their own experiences in trying these assessment games, explaining how they modified them to fit the abilities of their students or the context of their classroom.

For teachers who demonstrate competence creating, administering, scoring, and recording formative assessments, we should design interventions that help teachers to use assessment data to target students needing additional support and to engender a safe classroom environment where higher-order questioning can be introduced. For example, trainings could include an emphasis on time-saving strategies such as exit tickets or the grouping of students by their performance on a quiz. Materials could include call-out boxes in teachers guides that indicate where students should be asked to justify their answer to a math problem, and that encourage teachers to celebrate any student who volunteers to give an explanation. During community of practice or other teacher meetings, facilitators could make time for teachers to share assessment items on which students did poorly and discuss ways to address these “weak spots.”

To provide more details on the above recommendations, the first half of this guide looks through the lens of the teacher. It presents different types of classroom-based assessments and formative assessment tools, elaborating on how information from each can be used in instructional decision making. The guide presents the continuum of AII implementation, discussed above, which can be used both as a diagnostic tool and as guidance for designing interventions. It offers concrete examples of informal and formal formative assessment strategies and provides guiding questions to help teachers reflect and act on results. The first half of the guide also offers potential strategies to mitigate the challenges to using AII, including large classroom sizes, time pressures, and a lack of confidence and comfort among teachers in analyzing and using data.

The second half of the guide zooms out, looking through the lens of a government or program intervention. It aims to answer the question, “How can teachers be supported in using AII at scale?” Guidance to interventions is organized around the assessment context; materials development; and professional development for teachers, including coaching, peer support, and in-service and pre-service training.

Teachers want their students to learn and grow. Using AII in the classroom can help facilitate this by (1) providing time-sensitive information on progress toward learning goals; (2) holding all classroom actors (including students) mutually accountable for fulfilling their role in the learning process; and (3) increasing equitable learning by discerning whether all students or just a select few are learning, and by identifying and addressing students’ individual needs. The challenge for us now is to bridge the gap between teachers’ prior experiences, on the one hand, and effective AII practices, on the other. This can be done by packaging AII approaches in a digestible way that fits into existing instructional practice, and by providing teachers with the tools they need to test and adapt these approaches – in turn generating their own evidence on whether AII works.  

About the Expert

Rachel is an M&E advisor with RTI's International Education group, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to this, she was M&E advisor on the USAID/SHRP project in Uganda for 4 years..