Do we even know what we assess when we assess learning?

‘It took me quite some time to get the little girl to let me know what was bothering her,’ said Prof. A. K. Sharma, the former Director of NCERT. The year was 2000 and he was telling me about an incident from a class 2 maths period in the model school in the NCERT campus. The teacher had just completed teaching children subtraction of two-digit numbers with ‘borrowing’, and he had found two children hesitating over the problems they had been given to solve.

The first, a girl, had made a ‘mistake’ as she had failed to borrow from the tens side. Being a grandfatherly and kindly figure, he was able to cajole the girl to speak up. Very softly, looking down and away from him all the while, she said, ‘We learnt in the moral science class that borrowing is bad.’

Reeling from this, he approached the other child, a boy, and discussed why he had not completed his work on the problem. After much exchange, the boy said, ‘But why should I borrow 1? I want to borrow 2.’

Taking part in a recent session on ‘error analysis’, I was reminded of Prof. Sharma’s advice to engage with children to understand their ‘errors’ rather than rely on their work on paper. In numerous assessment experiences since, I’ve seen children who are otherwise very competent falter because of an issue at home or a fight with a friend or because they are being bullied. In open-ended questions in language, teachers are hard put to identify if there really is an ‘error’ or if the child’s view is a valid, logical interpretation. (And asking only close-ended questions is hardly sufficient to understand children’s abilities.) It becomes even more difficult when it comes to children from marginalized backgrounds – as they encounter discrimination and even denigration (of their background, language or culture), they often resist by ‘not-learning’ or do not answer out of fear of being ‘disciplined’.

As the evaluation industry expands in the Indian context with more and more professionals taking in rigorous analysis of children’s responses and analyses of their ‘errors’, the tendency is to interpret these within the framework of the subject for which the test was conducted. But do we know what we really assess when we look closely at children’s responses? What if it’s not a maths or language issue but something else altogether?