India’s PISA Moment: Are we Turning into a Nation of Nitwits?


A person holds the 2009 OECD education report, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, during a news conference in Vienna, December, 2010. (Photo: Reuters)
A person holds the 2009 OECD education report, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, during a news conference in Vienna, December, 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

India’s PISA Moment: Are we Turning into a Nation of Nitwits?

India is a habitual truant from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international learning aptitude test for 15-16-year-old school students across countries or economies.

The test, designed and conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is increasingly becoming, since its beginning in 2000, an accepted litmus test for gauging countries’ future intellectual potential. India joined the 2009 PISA round to test the water, allowing two states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, to participate as regions.

India: A Land Without Geniuses?



A schoolgirl reads from a textbook at an open-air school in New Delhi, November, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
A schoolgirl reads from a textbook at an open-air school in New Delhi, November, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

The competition gave India a bloody nose, with the boys and girls of the two states ending right down at the bottom of the list of 74 countries and regions, finishing just above Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian state known for its gas, oil and gold but not for geniuses. The brainiest teenagers emerged from China’s Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. The best performers in the two Indian states were almost 100 points behind the average child in Singapore and a shocking 250 points behind the best.

India’s education planners have since been arguing in self-defence that the TN and HP lads were not up to the mark because they faced language difficulty. It is a lame excuse as regions in the Sinic world, who too are not Anglophone, still became champions. Besides, what has language got to do with the mathematics skill of an Indian eighth grader standing close to that of a Korean third grader?

Language, the Official Excuse

Further, India’s PISA 2009 score was generally on a par with many other tests conducted internally across Indian states. In 2008, results from Odisha and Rajasthan were used for insertion into matrices modelled on TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study). The two states were close to the bottom of the global ranking. Year after year, the well-known ASER study by Pratham is showing that a large chunk of Standard 8 students cannot grasp study material for Standard 2.

The Indian HRD ministry was so embarrassed by the PISA 2009 result that it kept rabbiting on its linguistic-cultural-discrepancy argument to stay out of PISA 2012, which, incidentally, proved an Asian miracle of brainpower. The top positions went to Singapore, Korea, Japan, Macao-China, Hong-Kong-China, Shanghai-China and Chinese Taipei. For PISA 2015, China has widened its participation by including Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong.

A Question of Misplaced Focus

Students watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on screen as he speaks during a nationwide address to school children during Teachers’ Day in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad September 5, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Students watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on screen as he speaks during a nationwide address to school children during Teachers’ Day in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad September 5, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

PISA participation requires the willing country/region to convey its willingness two years in advance for OECD to begin its sampling process. In 2013, the UPA government sat tight through the year and let the opportunity to participate pass by. However, what is more important than just jumping on the global student-testing bandwagon is to introspect about the students’ proven shortcomings.

UPA thought rather naively that more money and more standard schools would fill the intellect deficit. Unfortunately, the NDA government singularly lacks any thinking on this vital issue. Its advisers from the RSS are full of crazy ideas on ‘Vedic’ history and ‘Vedic’ mathematics but are blank on the question of why a third of the children from the land of Srinivasa Ramanujam, one of the greatest mathematical minds of modern times, had cold sweat when asked to find a fraction larger than 2/7. But India’s dream of achieving greatness this century depends to a great extent on the ability of this generation to comprehend issues and solve problems.

Intelligent Quotient vs Indian Quotient



HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, beleaguered with charges that she inflated her otherwise modest educational attainments, may not find the secrets of Sino-Japanese education in the RSS-prescribed texts. (File Photo: Reuters)
HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, beleaguered with charges that she inflated her otherwise modest educational attainments, may not find the secrets of Sino-Japanese education in the RSS-prescribed texts. (File Photo: Reuters)

India’s PISA fear may originate from the endemic IQ deficit. Psychometric expert Richard Lynn calculates the average IQ of young Indians in India at 82. It is higher than Sub-Saharan Africa but still many points below the Chinese in China, which is thought to be in the 101-102 range. There is a multiplier of average IQ, the Flynn effect, which makes IQ rise with the pushes of civilisation, improvement in diet, better living conditions and genetic changes.

By 2030 or so, the Flynn effect may drive Indian IQ to the low 90s but China will make much larger strides by then. The average IQ of Indian-Americans is high. But that is because most of them are Brahmins or other high caste. In India’s caste-divided society, knowledge being historically confined to Brahmins, the average IQ has remained skewed due to this factor.

The Chinese and Japanese are of course doing something with the minds of their youngsters. It may soon help them race much ahead of Anglo-whites this century. India’s HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, beleaguered with charges that she inflated her otherwise modest educational attainments, may not find the secrets of Sino-Japanese education in the RSS-prescribed texts.

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