India Shining and Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement

By Jishnu Das and Tristan Zajonc
Journal of Development Economics, 30 June 2010

Increasing evidence suggests that the level and distribution of cognitive skills is more important to economic development than absolute measures of schooling attainment, and that income and skill inequality are inextricably linked. Yet for most of the developing world no internationally comparable estimates of cognitive skills exist. This paper uses student answers to publicly released questions from an international testing agency together with statistical methods from Item Response Theory to place secondary students from two Indian states—Orissa and Rajasthan—on a worldwide distribution of mathematics achievement. These two states fall below 43 of the 51 countries for which data exist. The bottom 5% of children rank higher than the bottom 5% in only three countries—South Africa, Ghana and Saudi Arabia. But not all students test poorly. Inequality in the test-score distribution for both states is next only to South Africa. The combination of India's size and large variance in achievement give both the perceptions that India is shining even as Bharat, the vernacular for India, is drowning. How India's development unfolds will depend critically on how the skill distribution evolves and how low- and high-skilled workers interact in the labor market.