The Ministry of Human Resource Development must be congratulated for steering India back to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which it had declined to participate in after a disastrous performance in 2009. PISA is a global evaluation of 15-year-olds conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to gauge mathematical, scientific and reading skills of school students. Of the 74 nations participating, India was close to the bottom of the barrel. The UPA government had quit the field in high dudgeon, complaining about questions being set “out of context” in relation to the Indian socio-cultural milieu. Indeed, an Indian student may find it more comfortable to do sums using mangoes rather than avocados for units. But the argument can be taken only thus far, for the context of math and science is the universe and its contents. Besides, a test involving European motifs which Indian students could not engage with should have been just as inscrutable to Mandarin readers. The phenomenal success of Shanghai’s students suggests that the problem lies in India.
Anyway, PISA is not a contest. It is a research exercise generating data which can be compared across borders. Finishing last should not be read as losing face, but rather as an opportunity to improve teaching methods and school systems by intelligent comparison. If Singapore’s systems work better, what prevents Indian school boards from emulating them? India lost out by boycotting PISA in 2012 and 2015, when Asian countries like China, South Korea and Singapore surged ahead. India need not have missed the bus, but the HRD ministry tried to change the benchmark to fit the country, rather than trying to change the country’s teaching system to fit the benchmark.
While PISA is not a contest, it does have one competitive aspect: It is a reliable indicator of the future intellectual capital of participating countries. At one remove, it is a function of projected GDP, a reflection of the future wealth of nations. A country hoping to win the global GDP race should regard PISA as a target. And it should try to correct the structural imbalance that this test for schoolchildren draws attention to: India swears by universities and IITs, but it is happy to let primary and secondary schools, which form the bedrock of the education system, plod along with teaching methods that are decades old. The NDA government has done well to seek to return to PISA’s global testing system. But the crucial reform still lies ahead: PISA data must be used to improve the school system.