How to Assess Students’ Learning? A New World Bank Primer on Large-Scale Assessments Helps to Answer this Question

Photo: Sarah Farhat / World Bank Photo: Sarah Farhat / World Bank

Building a strong education system that promotes learning for all is fundamental to a country’s development and economic growth.   Among the different actions that can strengthen the quality of an education system, regular, large-scale assessments of student achievement levels – when done well – can be particularly relevant and cost-effective. These assessments stand out from others because of their capacity to provide system-level insights on student achievement that help guide reforms to improve teaching and learning at scale. Large-scale assessments have allowed policymakers and other stakeholders to identify important factors linked to student achievement , to better understand the learning status of key population subgroups and, in some cases, to monitor changes in student achievement over time. Moreover, large-scale assessments can be incredibly useful for setting learning targets for an education system and for producing data for national and global learning indicators to help monitor the quality of that system, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 indicators and the World Bank’s Learning Poverty indicator.

All these desirable uses are predicated on the assessment being designed in a technically sound manner, and the results being appropriately analyzed and clearly communicated to stakeholders. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. As two psychometricians who have spent over 30 years combined working with countries on their assessment systems, common problems we see that prevent the effective use of results from these assessments include poorly designed tests and questions, weak administration practices, incorrect data handling and analysis, and incorrect interpretations (see some examples in Table 1).

Table 1. Examples of common problems in large-scale assessment and their consequences



Despite these problems, the quality of many large-scale assessment programs around the world has improved considerably over the years as more capacity is built in house, lessons are learned from each assessment round, technical assistance is provided, and assessment systems mature. But certain mistakes that could be prevented are still more common than they should be. This is a pity because the potential savings and benefits from using large-scale assessment results to guide priorities and identify factors affecting educational outcomes far exceed the costs of investing in them. This is particularly the case in the aftermath of the school shutdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to get a sense of system-level learning losses when schools reopen, so that resources can be strategically directed and appropriate remedial actions taken to ensure learning recovery.

In response to these critical needs, the World Bank has developed a new Primer on Large-Scale Assessments of Educational Achievement as a concise, easy-to-read introductory guide on the topic of large-scale assessments of educational achievement. It is a first-stop resource for those wanting to understand how to properly design, develop, administer, analyze, and use the results from large-scale assessments of educational achievement. The book also provides an update on the main international and regional large-scale assessment studies conducted in the last ten years. It includes nine chapters that address frequently asked questions from people working on large-scale assessment projects and those interested in making informed decisions about them, including the following:

  • What are large-scale assessments of educational achievement and why are they important?
  • How are results from large-scale assessments used?
  • What resources are needed to implement large-scale assessments?  
  • What are the key decisions in designing large-scale assessments?
  • What needs to be kept in mind for the implementation of large-scale assessments?
  • What are critical steps in the analysis of large-scale assessment data?
  • How can effective communication of large-scale assessment results be ensured?
  • What are the main international and regional large-scale assessments?


We hope that this new resource can support countries’ efforts to effectively implement and use large-scale assessments in support of better education quality and human capital development. We also hope that it contributes to global discussions around the importance of system-level monitoring of learning outcomes, and the need to pay attention to countries’ technical capacity needs for implementing large-scale assessment studies and strengthening their overall national assessment systems.

An online book launch event is scheduled on April 27, 2021 at 9:00 AM EDT (click here to join the event).  This work was sponsored by the Russia Education Aid for Development (READ) 2 Trust Fund.


Marguerite Clarke

Senior Education Specialist

Diego Luna-Bazaldua

Senior Education Specialist

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