For the third time, students from East Asian countries have outperformed their peers in the rest of the world in science, math, and reading in the 2015 Global Education International Triennial Survey. Popularly known as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), the survey is conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to test education systems by comparing the test performance of 15-year-old pupils.
The two-hour test not only evaluates the cognitive skills of students in science, math, and reading, but also assesses their ability to solve problems in new and unfamiliar conditions. The approach of PISA, according to the OECD’s director of education, “reflects the fact that modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.”
The latest results show that students from Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and China (Hong Kong, Macao, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Jiangsu province) were among the top performers. Over 540,000 students, from 70 countries, participated in the tests.
How did India rank? We’ll never know. For some reason, India refused to participate in the global survey.
India’s refusal to participate in PISA is hard to understand and also defies logic. In the 2009 survey, students from two Indian states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, participated; India placed 72nd among the 74 participating countries. Since then the Human Resource Development Ministry in India has chosen not to participate in PISA, as they perceived that there was a socio-cultural disconnect between the questions and Indian students, because of India’s peculiar “socio-cultural milieu.” Although India’s concerns have been backed by educational experts, that doesn’t change the fact that the PISA results can help in assessing standards of education in India, especially at the primary level.
Study after study has shown that the true indicator of economic development in a country is the education and wellbeing of its people. Although, India has made rapid economic progress over the last three decades, one area that has not received enough attention is the quality of primary education. In fact, the former vice chancellor of the Delhi University bemoaned the fact that a large majority of students in the university were unemployable because of their inability to apply their knowledge in real-life situations. This is because of a poor foundation in schools, where the emphasis is more on rote learning, rather than testing a student’s creative skills.
According to Pratham’s Annual Status of Education 2013 report, close to 78 percent of Indian children in Standard III and about 50 percent of children in Standard V cannot yet read Standard II texts. Arithmetic is also a cause for concern as only 26 percent students in Standard V can do a division problem. There has been little attempt by educators in the country to improve rural education, where the motivation among children to attend class is low because of such factors as negative parental pressure, poor facilities, and uninspired teaching.
In their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, quoting from an ASER survey conducted in 2011 in rural areas, commented that only 58 percent of children enrolled in classes three to five could read a class one text. Less than half (47 percent) were able to do simple two-digit subtraction. And only half of the children in classes five to eight could use a calendar. They were not found proficient in even basic skills; about two-thirds of the students in class four could not master the measurement of the length of the pencil with a ruler.
The students’ knowledge of India’s “socio-cultural milieu” was no better. According to the authors, “only a third of these ‘top school’ students in class four knew who was the alive person [sic] in a list of four: Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi (a small number thought, interestingly enough, that it was Mahatma Gandhi who was still alive).”
As per UNESCO data, India has one of the lowest public expenditure rates on education per student, especially compared to other Asian countries like China. India spends $264 per student per year compared to $1,800 spent by China. The World Bank report on its worldwide survey of public spending on education stated that India spent a meager 11 percent of public expenditure on education, compared to 20 percent in China.
Education in most schools is one dimensional, with an obsessive focus on marks. Added to this is the lack of availability of trained teachers at all levels. Quality teachers are the missing link in the Indian education system. Although pockets of excellence exist, the quality of teaching, especially in government schools, does not meet the standards. Quality teachers are exploring avenues in the United States and other countries, where there is a great demand for science and math teachers.
One crude fact about India’s education sector is that 282 million Indians are illiterate. With a literacy rate of 77 percent, India lags behind other BRICS nations, which have literacy rates above 90 percent. All these countries have better student-teacher ratios. So not only does India grapple with poor quality teachers, it also has fewer total teachers in comparison with other countries that do a better job at education.
There is no gainsaying that the education is the most neglected sector in India. If India wants to achieve its vision of becoming an economic power by 2020, the government has to allocate more resources to education. The allocation of resources in the educational sector should be increased from 3 percent to at least 4.5 percent of GDP for a period of five years to improve the quality of education at the primary level. Moreover, there is also an urgent need to improve teaching standards in government-aided schools in order to reduce the gap between public and private schools. This will help create a level playing field for all students, especially for disadvantaged students in the rural areas. If proper and timely steps are not taken, students from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore will leave Indian students far behind.
It is hoped that the Human Resource Development Ministry would encourage schools across India to take part in future tests conducted by OECD. Doing so will not only help India benchmark its progress with international standards, but will also force the ministry to constantly improve the standard of education based on tangible results. If suitable steps are taken, the performance of Indian students could compare with the best in the world.
K.S. Venkatachalam is an independent columnist and political commentator.