Indian kids are getting dumber at maths!

OK, that headline is a bit of a clickbait! They probably aren’t getting dumber, if anything it could be the opposite if the Flynn effect is really true. However, I specifically had the declining performance of Indian kids at the world’s foremost mathematics competition in mind, better known as the International Mathematics Olympiad or IMO, when I wrote that headline.

A bit of personal also-ran history is involved here as I did compete to join the Indian team at the turn of the millennium, but the competition was so fierce that I could not manage to get into the national-level top six that represent each country at the IMO. And that was just as well, as all the guys were clearly brighter and I did not deserve to be in that peer group. Nonetheless that teenage experience of competitive problem-solving (and failing to make the cut) informs my desire to keep a close watch on the Indian team’s performance at the IMO. I also occasionally try to solve IMO problems on boring London tube commutes, i.e. when I manage to get a damned seat, and share them with colleagues at work. Those interested can try them here.

The 2017 IMO recently concluded in late July, and the Indian team showed its worst performance this year since 1990 – the year it first started competing in this annual mathematical jousting event. Since this is brownpundits I tried to put the declining performance of Indians into context by comparing it, over the years, with our brown South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Throwing in Iran and United Kingdom as controls to add a bit of perspective. All the country-wise data can be accessed here.

Annual IMO Rank per country

The graphs are telling! India was up there with Iran and UK as its peers all through the 90s decade to the early 2000s. Indians were slightly worse-off than Iran, but by the turn of the millennium we were doing better. My own school-leaving cohort (and a couple of years around that) soundly beat both the Iranians and Brits. Yet 2005 marks a regime shift for the worse in average Indian performance at IMO and the data seem statistically significant.

I am at loss to explain this clearly worsening trend of performance by India’s brightest millennials. Did Indian parents really start begetting a dumber brood from the 90s onwards? I hope not! Good feeder schools and rigorous mathematical training play a big part in preparing high-school kids for such competitions and it is possible that some silly policy change (that I am unaware of) by the Indian government may have been a causal factor.

But there’s some hope in the same data for our Eastern cousins. Bangladeshi kids (and their mathematics training programme) seems to have shown phenomenal improvement(!) over the same period and now easily better India. India’s coincident decline does not help matters either. Bangladesh started competing at the IMO in the same year as Pakistan with similar laggardly results, but the subsequent improving trend in performance is clear as day. As for Pakistan, well, let’s just say that their national priorities leave a lot to be desired…