Posted by: Vikram | July 20, 2009

Placing Indian students in an International arena

Indians today form a visible proportion of leading academics and professionals around the world. A cursory look at professors in leading American universities will reveal that a fair amount tend to be from India, indeed, India sends the largest number of graduate students to America today. This has given rise to stereotypes of ‘smart’ and ‘model-minority’ Indians. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground is a desperate one, as Jishnu Das and Tristan Zajonc point out in ‘India Shining and Bharat Drowning‘. In the paper, the researchers present the results from the administration of the 8th grade Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to 6000 students in the states of Rajasthan and Orissa.

India’s failings in primary education are well known to most, although they are still denied by many. Das and Zajonc point out that,

Average learning levels are so low that the typical child will leave primary school without knowing how to read or perform elementary mathematical operations.

As it turns out, Indian students perform worse than 42 of the 51 countries tested in 2003. The average student from Orissa and Rajasthan could only answer 37 and 34 of the questions correctly whereas the international average was 52. The bottom 5 percent of Indian students perform worse than students of all countries except three. About 85 % of 9th grade Indian students struggled to even choose the minimum value out of the set 0.625, 0.25, 0.375, 0.5 and 0.125.

Many will try and argue that Rajasthan and Orissa are perhaps not the most representative states, however the nationwide Pratham survey (which tests students of lower grades) indicated that these states are among the better performing ones in India when it came to quality of education. If anything the choice of Orissa and Rajasthan might have given a positive bias to the true all India situation.

What then explains,

India’s increasing global presence, the large number of Indian professionals in high paying jobs, and the dramatic growth of its service industry

The author’s data and calculations however support this conclusion too. The author’s extend the performance of Rajasthan and Orissa to the whole of India and come up with very interesting results,


The vast majority of Indian students cant even pass the test, however India has the third highest number of high and advanced level students, placed only after the US and Japan. This is the result of the sheer size of the population along with the high variability in the quality of education in India today. It wouldnt surprise me if the high performing students were mostly from government-aided schools, schools run privately but with a bulk of financing from the state.

This large number of high performers (in absolute not relative terms) has perhaps lead to the creation of a self-perpetuating and self-absorbed middle class ‘elite’. This sort of data goes a long way in explaining the priorities of the urban elites and the English media. There are so many of them that they can think, talk and hear only about themselves. How they are to be sensitized to the desperate situation of the majority of the country is an open and challenging question.

Can India rescue itself from this crisis ? Substantial progress has been made in the last 10 years in the areas of enrollment and physical infrastructure of schools, however as this research shows much, much more needs to be done. India needs a combination of innovation and action to reach its potential.


  1. What I think is, even the top grade schools in India (many of them, not all) produce only students who are good at memorizing and mugging up. Don’t even come to the Engineering colleges: People mug up even equations! In this scenario, it is natural that Indians end up doing well only in the Software Services and BPO segment, and so many are proud of it!!

    Destination Infinity

  2. everyone remarks but does anyone has courage to come in teaching profession. Best brains sublime into wall street or foreign companies and rest damned unfortunate soul secure his life in teaching field. Here remains the legacy of such survey and we call growth in term of GDP only …

  3. Nothingpersonal vikram and Destination Infinity. just could not control rage on such pity state of my country. F@#$ing middle class ‘elite’ and english oriented thinkers… Really ‘India Shining and Bharat Drowning‘….
    Vikram its a good compilation of data. good job man

    • Yayaver, I understand and share your frustations, but angst and frustration can get us nowhere.

      We have to understand properly the role and importance of such tests and surveys. They are invaluable in meaningfully and rigorously defining and pin-pointing problems. Everyone knows that the great Indian school system is in a desperate situation but data and analysis gives us evidence and points to the steps that need to be taken and the scale at which they have to be taken.

      Right now we are young and only starting our adult lives. Our ruling establishment is still dominated by people who are a generation or two older than us. Their thoughts and prejudices were probably formed around the same age that we are at now. By informing and educating ourselves we will be in a position to act decisively when/if we become part of the ruling establishment or have more influence on it.

      That doesnt mean that we cant do anything right now, we can learn and understand. We can then spread the word to others. If the opportunities arise we can even get involved in these issues ourselves.

  4. Hi Vikram,

    You say:

    “The vast majority of Indian students cant even pass the test, however India has the third highest number of high and advanced level students, placed only after the US and Japan. This is the result of the sheer size of the population along with the high variability in the quality of education in India today.”

    I believe even the best everyday schools in India (i.e. excluding Doon school or Rs. 1 lakh tuition per year schools or other such oddities) are very low quality. So I think that the exceptional performers are probably benefiting from family circumstances (ie. tuitions, parents teaching, etc.).

    In the article family circumstances don’t explain much of the variance in scores, while schools do. I speculate that this is because the *lower* tail (of the distribution of poor performers) is a strong/thick tail, while the higher tail is thin. Thus most of the variance lies in the lower tail, where schooling does explain performance variance.

    If I’m right, the higher tail is probably better explained by individual variance (i.e. size of the population) and family factors.

    • Armchair guy, I guess in many ways you are right to say that the elite schools in India are of low quality, I dont know if a math test would be able to test that though. I wouldnt call the highest performers exceptional without actually looking at the tests themselves.

  5. Vikram, a news item recently mentioned that school teachers in certain states did not know basic arithmetic! That is the sad state today. People are being hired for all sorts of reasons, and merit is certainly not one of them.

    • Yes the training of school teachers is a major reason for this situation and this is not just in their knowledge but also in their approach to teaching the subjects.

  6. Generally,appointments of teachers in Govt schools are made on certain considerations and not necessarily on merit.
    In states like Bihar,they are not paid salary in time.What can we expect from them

  7. Such gigantic difference in the competency levels of graduates shipping away to America and the kids receiving primary education is indeed amusing if not unexpected.

    Most of the America-bound graduates are from the great Indian middle class and their aspirations are mainly earning big bucks and staying away from the penury and destitution in India.

  8. Sorry for the late response Chetan bhai but I have been busy moving for the last two days.

    “About 85 % of 9th grade Indian students struggled to even choose the minimum value out of the set 0.625, 0.25, 0.375, 0.5 and 0.125.”

    Very hard to believe indeed–I looked to that document, but it’s so huge that i myself can’t assess the correctness of the methodology they used. However, I assume that tests were administered in native (not hindi or english) languages. Were they?

    You are right, the document is not at all clear on the details of the test. But if you were aware of the findings of the NGO Pratham (which did a very large scale, detailed and systematic study, see here) these figures would perhaps not be unbelievable.

    Apart from the valid points that you all have raised, communication could also be the significant barrier, especially in the indian education system, where kids are made to learn by un-natural external pressure and not by invoking their interest or curiosity. Such learning is not sustainable and kid may fail the test not because he doesn’t know the answer or can’t work out the answer, but because can’t express or collect his/her self for various psychological factors, may be arising from social situations.

    Absolutely, I sort of see a master-servant paradigm here too although I might be wrong. Teachers think of themselves as masters and students become submissive and reluctant to question. As you point out such ‘learning’ is not sustainable and might even lead to an intense dislike of school and teachers.

    I would like to object their extrapolating the data from two states to entire country to give that table. Correct me when i say they don’t seem to be using any mathematical or statistical technique, while extending the data to entire country. Even if they do use any such thing, the fact that india is so diverse in terms of all factors that one can think of tells us that such statistical extrapolation from 2 states to all states may not be correct.

    One can perhaps identify different communities primarily based on region and economic level (may be also caste). Perform such study on small sample of each of such community. Then add them together to talk about entire nation, which will then be compared to other nations. It’s laborious, but for country like india, i dont see any other way to get reliable estimate.

    Again, this is a very valid point. But the limited findings of this study indicate a great need for the pan-Indian study you mention. More than anything that will help us identify which states/districts are doing better, and what it is their doing that is working better than the others.

  9. Good post. Socio-economic inequalitites must be the reason for such variability.

  10. I was reading a book by Pavan K Verma named ‘The great Indian middle class’ and came across this page and my mind couldn’t help but wander to your post. Here I post some lines from the book.

    ‘There were other areas in which the interests of the dominant coalition, of which the urban middle class constituted an important part, hijacked the policies of the state, to the enduring detriment of those for whom the policies were supposedly formulated. In the Constitution adopted by free India in 1950, Article 45 provided for free and compulsory education for all children under the age of fourteen. The middle class of India had always accorded great importance to education and this statement of intent could not but have had their support. However, their demand was not for basic education which they had already acquired, but for higher education. It was their pressure, notwithstanding the importance given at the policy level to primary education, which led to a most remarkable and improper growth in higher education. Given that resources were both scarce and finite, such a growth could only have taken place at the cost of other educational priorities. Not surprisingly, today India sends about six times more people to the universities and other higher educational establishments than China; however, roughly half of India’s population is illiterate, while China’s adult literacy rates are close to 80 percent. In fact, there is little doubt that the lopsided development of education in India is directly linked to the structure of Indian society and that the inequalities in education are, in fact, a reflection of inequalities of economic and social powers of different groups in India. The educational inequalities both reflect and help to sustain social disparities.’

    I know I quoted a very big paragraph from the book. What’s your take on whatever been’s said in the above paragraph?

    • Abhishek, thank you for sharing this paragraph. Middle class India likes to play the victim even though it is one of the chief exploiters and the elitist English media further encourages these notions (apart from a few notable exceptions).

      What Mr. Verma has said here seems mostly correct, India is paying a huge price for failing to get its priorities right here. However let me point out that elite dominance was not restricted to education alone, it affected land reform even more where the dominant land-owners successsfully resisted land redistribution.

      I think a big part of the problem was the lack of political activism among the low castes and the fact that they had few leaders capable of organizing them and articulating their demands. They themselves were ill-informed as the newspaper media was dominated by English language newspapers and the upper caste interests.

      This has changed in the last few decades, there has been a stupendous growth in media and newspapers in languages that the majority of Indians can understand. With this has come more political activism but unfortunately with liberalisation of economy has come a weakening of the Indian state and the emergence of corporate interests, that are again mostly unconcerned about the majority.

      I can carry on but Pavan Verma probably says this much better than I do.

      The question is, what do we do now and where do we go from here ?

  11. Great blog Vikram…..And a welcome voice concerned with education standards it seems. As a PhD student in Australia, it’s rare to see Indian students take arts subjects (Contemporary Music in my case). Do you think that the pressure to earn after studying dictates the type of education offered? Societies are enriched by a broad approach to education….mathmatics and science, but also visual and practical arts, in my view (but I would say that being a musician). Is art offered in the Indian school system?

    Welcome, Beepsnow and thanks. Yes, Indian students taking up arts studies is almost unheard of. And yes, in large part this is driven by economic compulsions. But these compulsions, now having existed for over a generation, are fast becoming cultural and social norms. The general understanding of an educated Indian in the areas of humanities and arts is abysmal in my experience and opinion.

    School curriculum in India vary hugely from state to state. In my school, art was not offered as part of the curriculum (apart from some really bad ‘drawing’ classes), but one could take classes in Western musical instruments after classes. I think this is the general situation, across schools and states. Indian classical music is a bit hard to incorporate in a class, as the training is highly personal and one on one interaction between the student and teacher. Also, the religious undercurrents in Indian classical music are very strong and for that reason they certainly cant be taught in most schools.

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