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 literacy.
The 2011 survey reports that China’s Shanghai province scored the highest in reading and also topped the charts in mathematics and science.
China has been on top for last several years and it seems the country’s youngsters are unbeatable and are far ahead than their counterparts.
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 standards.
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 efficiently.
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 classrooms.
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 economic growth.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org