The conventional wisdom on learning outcomes is that the country's state government public schools and low-end private schools are where the problem lies and their troubles have to do with poverty and other social issues. And that the remaining part of the country's education system is in good shape and those students can compete with the best in the world. This belief gets entrenched by the excellent performance of Indian students in international Math and Science competitions as well as the dominance of graduates from IITs etc in various professional fields.
So, it comes as a surprise (HT:Lant Pritchett) when we examine the relative performance of Indian students at the top end of the achievement spectrum in the 2009 PISA tests which assessed a representative sample of students from the two best performing Indian states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. As can be seen, less than a percent of students in both states were above Level 4 (out of six levels) in the PISA test. The contrast with those countries that we aspire to match or even claim equivalence, atleast for the best and brightest among Indians, is staggering.
The comfort that we are better off comes from a cognitive bias. The immediacy of these kids engenders an availability bias, which makes people feel as though the schools where their children are going are as good as anything in the world. Sure, there are outliers, and they are the top 0.1% (or maybe 1%) or so of the schools.