A new study by World Bank economists Jishnu Das and Tristan Zajonc presents some stark evidence.
The study links the results of a test given to 6,000 teenagers in two states — Rajasthan in western India and Orissa in the east — to students' performance on the same exam in 51 other countries.
The researchers conclude that mathematical abilities of India's 14-year-olds vary widely between the worst and the best students.
If other states are similar to the ones studied then it would mean that 17 million Indian students don't meet the lowest international benchmark of 'some basic mathematical knowledge.' That's 22 times the corresponding figure for the U.S.
At the same time, the depth of India's math talent — those whose test scores are considered to be of an advanced level — is also significant. 'For every 10 top performers in the U.S., there are four in India,' the World Bank economists say. That's 100,000 students, or more than any European country.
Mind the Gap
This latter group is supplying the bulk of India's scientific, technical, managerial and entrepreneurial talent and is responsible for the country's growing clout in the global knowledge economy.
It would be a perfectly happy situation for India, if so many other ninth-graders weren't falling hopelessly behind.
Take a sample math question from the 36 that make up the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study: What's the smallest number out of 0.625, 0.25, 0.375, 0.5 and 0.125?
The global average of right answers is 46%; in Rajasthan, it drops to 11%. Orissa fares only slightly better with 17%.
'The average scores of children in Rajasthan and Orissa place these states below 46 and 42 of the 51 countries tested in 1999 or 2003,' Das and Zajonc say in their study.
Only in South Africa was there greater inequality in test- score distribution.
The variance has less to do with household income, caste, parental literacy or wealth; more of it may be due to the quality of schooling a child receives.
According to the researchers, this is a 'hopeful sign' because 'it is easier to change behavior among teachers and to improve schools, than it is to do the same thing among parents.'