Sweat at the nape of your neck. Hands balled up. White knuckles tensely rapping the underside of a rickety old table. Pens, rulers, protractors lined up as if going into battle.

Sounds familiar? It’s exam time.

As February turns to March, children across the country take the dreaded board exams. By April 2019 alone, 2.8 million students would’ve sat for the CBSE Class X and XII boards. Another 1 million students will take the JEE (Joint Entrance Exams) to determine who is good enough to join the IIT superhighway of future engineers.

While all these exams are designed to test students, this year, India’s prepping for another kind of dipstick—one that will test the health of her broken education system. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—a global ranking system—to assess higher-order, conceptual thinking across a sample of 5,000 15-year-old students of a country. But India’s history with taking the PISA has been less than ideal. In fact, we straight-up flunked in 2009, placing 73rd out of 74 countries that participated, just a little ahead of Kyrgyzstan. The bid to re-enter the global ranking in 2019 has come as a surprise to education experts in the country, and is, according to ministry insiders, instigated by Shanghai’s strong run in the rankings.


Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh represented India in PISA 2009. The best students of the sample were a whole 100 points behind the average Singaporean child, and 83 points behind the average Korean.

“The challenge isn’t that we’ve decided to compete at a global stage again. That’s encouraging. It’s that most students who will take the PISA would’ve never seen those type questions. They’re bound to struggle,” says a Delhi-based education policy expert, who wished not to be named. The real concern, adds the expert, isn’t that India won’t rank as high as China, but that in the intervening decade, quality improvements in India’s education system have moved at a crawling pace. While enrollment in schools is almost 95%, the quality of curriculum, teaching and assessments have remained abysmally low for the majority of students.

India’s decade-long boycott of PISA overlapped with its intensifying love affair with edtech. Investments in education technology companies have shot up from $296 million in 2016 to $759 million in 2018. The glitzy, gamified world of edtech was built upon the promise of addressing gaps of access and quality that have long plagued traditional classrooms. Edtech solutions also claim to drag India’s learning standards into the 21st-century with an emphasis on conceptual over rote-learning. In an interview for a 2018 Harvard case study, Byju Raveendran, the eponymous founder of the Byju’s Learning App, even claimed that app lessons could reduce the time a student spent in classrooms or tuitions. A 10-minute video, says Byju’s data, is equivalent to a 30-minute tuition class.


Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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