March 29, 2023

ATAR – Is It the Be All and End All? Author: Meg Melville

When asked about what is most important to them regarding their child’s school experience, most parents will answer that they want their child to be happy; to have a sense of belonging; to experience a sense of accomplishment and for the school to bring out the best in their child through a myriad of engaging, relevant and challenging opportunities and experiences.

Educators want that too, so that is a great starting point when there is strong alignment between the child, their parents and their chosen school. So, why does this focus potentially shift as the child progresses through the Junior and Middle years to Senior Secondary? There is no doubt that academic performance begins to assume a far greater importance as post-school pathways come into focus and this is when discussions about the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) really come into play. Course selection discussions commence in Year 10 as students plan for post school pathways with options to cater for realistic and aspirational expectations. In fact, course selection pathways may have begun earlier than Year 10 dependent on student performance in subjects such as Mathematics.

Just briefly, the ATAR achieved by students seeking university entrance is a ranking, not a score. In Western Australia, students seeking university entrance, sit their state-based examinations and receive a score based on their 4 highest scoring courses. This is then converted to a ranking, with all students in the state then assigned a ranking based on the highest score to the lowest score of all eligible students throughout the state sitting these examinations. This process is managed by the state-based Tertiary Institutions Services Centre (TISC) which manages the university course offerings based on their ATAR to eligible students, on behalf of the local public universities.

So inevitably, a student’s focus does turn to the ATAR required to gain entrance into their desired courses and flows on to the marks they will need to be achieving through combined school-based and external examination outcomes. This is not new and not unique to Australia. TISC has been in operation in Western Australia since 1975, when the demand for places at university exceeded the number of places on offer, as places were capped. Caps on university places were removed in 2004, freeing up the number of places available to students. TISC managed the process of university placement offers based on students’ rankings and continues to do so today. Without TISC, universities would be required to sort eligibility and offers themselves which would require a huge amount of resourcing and duplication and it is highly unlikely that this will happen any time soon.

As mentioned, this is not unique to Australia. Students seeking university entrance are generally required to sit a form of curriculum-based secondary school exit/university entrance examination, or a general aptitude test/scholastic aptitude test to determine their likely ability to succeed at the tertiary level of study. It is a measure, not a guarantee. Some countries do operate differently, in that any student can attend university and their ability to continue beyond first year is determined by their academic performance during that first year.

What has changed with university entrance is the degree of flexibility: early offers, mid-year intakes, bridging courses, mature-age entrance, the role of VET Certificates. Universities are now in a very competitive space where prospective students are concerned and their funding plays directly into this.

With all this being said, why is there so much opposition to the ATAR amongst educators? Rather than the ATAR itself, is it more about how the ATAR is being used to make judgements about schools, their leadership, the teachers and the students? Similarly, is it more about the median ATAR placement of schools in the league table and the media frenzy that surrounds the publishing of this information, feeding perceptions and misconceptions about schools? Probably both.

All educators would agree that casting judgement about a school’s success based on the single, numerical median ATAR is a fraught and erroneous approach. There are many reasons for this:

· There is the assumption that academic success is the only important element to schooling

· It focuses solely on academic curriculum and ignores all other aspects of the school experience

· Academic success by this measure takes no account of the “value added” to a student’s learning, their progress over time

· There is no recognition of the cocurricular activities which enable students to experience success and shape character

· There is no account taken of the critical pastoral and wellbeing learning experiences which help to shape character and develop resilience

· Where does the learning around values, cultural, social and emotional intelligence fit in

· The median ATAR can be engineered to achieve an outcome through schools being academically selective or requiring a level of achievement to pursue Year 11 and 12 courses

· Not all students completing senior secondary seek tertiary entrance

· There is no recognition of vocational learning or workplace learning as alternative ATAR pathways

· Students studying an alternative curriculum by choice, such as the International Baccalaureate, are not included in the median ATAR statistics

· The median ATAR may be more of a reflection of the school’s socio economic status

· The school’s enrolment philosophy and policy may include a much higher number of marginalized students

· It will place enormous pressure on the Principal, teaching staff and students if the school Board sets a Top 10/Top 20 league table ranking as a strategic KPI

· The pressure felt by students (on themselves or by others) to achieve a certain ATAR can have a significant impact on student well-being and mental health

· Emphasis on the ATAR may have a trickle-down impact on the way student learning and assessment takes place in the middle years

· Fostering of the critical skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and problem solving through design thinking and solution-focused learning will be compromised by content heavy curriculum and assessment

There is no doubt that media interest in the ATAR feeds into parental expectations and perceptions about school performance. Parents may choose a school that quite deliberately states academic success as their primary focus. As long as a school can have open and honest conversations and messaging about what their priorities are within their educational philosophy, parents will exercise their right to choose. Hopefully all ensuing conversations between the school and parents will be around celebrating their child’s growth, progress and accomplishments across all domains of learning. Embedding a strong sense of purpose, acceptance and well-being will bring happiness and success well beyond school days, when the ATAR has long been forgotten.

As to the future of the ATAR, there is no doubt that many educators would happily see it go. The big question is what will replace it. Transparency, reliability, comparability, fairness and equal opportunity to all students must be integral to any system for stakeholders to have confidence in it. Currently we have a hybrid system anyway, with COVID seeing a big upturn in early offers and that too, has its detractors. The discussion will continue as we evolve to a different system; in the meantime we need to focus on our students and ensuring that they remain motivated, engaged, challenged, well-cared for and prepared for the opportunities and challenges that lie in wait post-school.