India celebrated its sixty third
republic day on January 26, 2012. Like every year, this time too,
a grand show was organized at the historic Rajpath in New Delhi to
commemorate the occasion. The pomp and gaiety that marked the
occasion showcased India’s laurels in many spheres of activities.
Almost all the TV channels gave a chronological description to
this date, India’s progress from January 26, 1950 when India
adopted its constitution and became a republic.
However, the positive blushes may pale into a big grin when we
hear that our fifteen-year-old students who were put for the first
time on a global stage and tested for their reading, math and
science abilities, stood second to last, only beating Kyrgyzstan.
The results of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD) Secretariat's Programme for International
Student Assessment (PISA), ranked India 72nd out of 73 countries.
The PISA results are based on data collected from some 500,000
students undergoing two hour tests conducted annually that
evaluates the education systems worldwide. The tests are meant to
conduct comparative analyses, across vast international contexts,
of 15-year-old students for "reading, mathematical and scientific
The 2011 survey reports that China’s Shanghai province scored the
highest in reading and also topped the charts in mathematics and
China has been on top for last several years and it seems the
country's youngsters are unbeatable and are far ahead than their
The survey noted that more than one-quarter of Shanghai's 15 year
olds demonstrated advance mathematical thinking skills to solve
complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3 per cent.
India’s participants came from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh
that showcased India’s education and development, but fared
miserably at the PISA test.
According to the OECD report, the average 15-year-old Indian is
over 200 points behind the global topper.
Comparing scores, it’s estimated that an Indian eighth grader is
at the level of a South Korean third grader in math abilities or a
second-year student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills.
In case of scientific literacy levels Tamil Nadu students had very
mean score that was below the means of all OECD countries, but
better than Himachal Pradesh.
According to report, in Himachal Pradesh, 11 per cent of students
are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at
or above the baseline level needed to participate effectively and
productively in life. It follows that 89 per cent of students in
Himachal are estimated to be below that baseline level.
Experts are unsure if selecting these two states was a good idea
for India to participate at the PISA programme.
Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh rank high on human development
indicators among Indian states. The India Human Development Report
2011, prepared by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR),
categorized them as “median” states, putting them significantly
ahead of the national average.
The fact is that not the USA, UK, France or any other developed
country from Europe or America that tops the PISA list in the
consecutive years but it is the Asian countries that mostly on top
this standard education test. China, South Korea, Hong Kong,
Singapore, Japan and UAE are far better than India.
This shows that an image of a world divided neatly into rich and
well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated countries is a
myth. The fact is that economic development and education are not
congruent to each other and the two has little in common.
There is another fallacy in this story. While national income and
educational achievement are still related; the PISA result show
that the two countries, India and China with similar levels of
prosperity can produce very different results when it comes to the
educational assessment of its school children.
This brings to another presupposition can India aspire to compete
with China for Asian supremacy, when the stark reality is its
educational standard is way below the expectation to meet Chinese
According to the census 2011, India has 74.04 per cent total
literacy (82.12 % males and 65.46 % females). It's a proud moment
for a country which has started from 20 per cent national literacy
rate in 1950 and now racing towards 100 per cent target.
However, when we put our proud achievement to the global test then
the fact that comes to hunt us as bad dreams is the poor
educational standard of the country.
Prior to this participation in 2003, students from Indian states
of Orissa and Rajasthan took a similar test called “Trends in
International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)” and produced
similar results. TIMSS is another standardized international test.
The 2003 TIMSS study ranked India at 46 among 51 countries. Indian
students' score was 392 versus average of 467 for the group. These
results were contained in a Harvard University report titled
"India Shining and Bharat Drowning".
In the second most populous nation on the planet, with the second
biggest educational system in the world, it seems that the
preferred way to bring clarity to a massive, murky educational
landscape would be to let statistics paint the picture cleanly and
However, to keep the subject in perspective the Indian context is
so complex, so multi-dimensional, that trying to understand its
depth merely through a numbered tale is not just silly, but
detrimental to our ability to work on fixing what's wrong.
The two-hour tests cutting across vast socio-economic, linguistic,
and ethnic divides tell us little of the context-specific literacy
practices from those areas.
There are many discrepancies in the test itself that were
disadvantaging for the Indian students. In many ways it actually
did not really comprehend the actual knowledge of our students.
What we end up then are overbroad characterizations of how poorly
Indian education is doing, on the basis of large-scale data
collection that doesn't tell what's actually going on in the
This isn't to say that PISA is useless and the data is sheer
garbage. The statistics definitely tells us some hard facts about
our own educational system. Clearly, India have to ramp up its
efforts and get serious about what goes on in its schools as
better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future
Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at