Abandoning ATAR

I switched on the TV yesterday to see someone described as an ex-principal suggesting we use the coronavirus situation as an opportunity to ditch the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) system. So I tweeted my frustration.

For those outside Australia, the ATAR is a score given to Year 12 students who wish to go to university based upon their performance in Year 12 exams. In theory, it is a rank relative to the cohort who all started secondary school together so if, for instance, you get an ATAR of 95.00, that places you in the top 5%. There is necessarily an element of fudge to this because many students in the cohort do not sit the exams as they do not intend to go to university.

I won’t bore you with the details of how it works, apart from to say that it does the job of taking the different states’ approaches to Year 12 exams and marrying them into an Australia-wide admissions system. And it’s important to note the ATAR is not the only consideration for university entrance. Some courses require students to sit certain prerequisite subjects at Year 12 and my own view is that prerequisites should be a greater factor than they are. Some courses offer non-ATAR routes or discounted entry requirements for particular students.

When people like the ex-principal on the ABC say they want to get rid of the ATAR, what exactly do they mean? Do they want to remove just the ranking calculation or the exam system that underpins it?

Unfortunately, calling for the abolition of the ATAR is a lot like calling for the abolition of NAPLAN, the suite of standardised literacy and numeracy assessments taken by Australian students in May of Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 (although not this year). It’s the sort of call that the media treat largely uncritically. If you go on something like ABC News or The Project and say we should abolish the ATAR because it causes stress, you will be received with much head-nodding and chin-stroking but few probing questions about the detail of your plan for an alternative university admissions system. It’s a free hit. And it is equally guaranteed to be popular on the croissant circuit.

Through a string of Twitter connections, the ex-principal from ABC News somehow came across my tweet. I learnt that he is Adam Voigt and his Twitter biography states he is a former principal and an education expert for the radio stations 2GB and 3AW, for the TV show, The Project, and for the Herald-Sun newspaper.

I tried to engage him in the detail of the argument for or against the ATAR but he wasn’t keen.

Despite not advancing the discussion very far, the reference to Peter Hutton’s (@EdRev) petition is useful because Hutton’s petition adds some clarity to what a future without the ATAR is meant to look like:

“I propose senior students still demonstrate their competence in each subject, assessed by their teacher and authenticated by another qualified subject teacher. Universities have time to develop their own criteria for entrance, including a “learning and life portfolio” along with any prerequisite subjects as happens in the USA.”

This is an extremely bad idea. Teacher assessment is being forced on schools in England due to the timing of northern hemisphere exams but it is hardly an ideal solution. Teacher assessment is prone to unconscious bias in a way that examinations are not and that tends to work against the already disadvantaged. In fact, this part of Hutton’s plan is similar to arrangements recently abandoned in Queensland.

And what will the criteria for entry that universities develop look like? The American system is hardly one we should wish to emulate. Although privileged kids have access to tutors and other supports, when they get into the exam hall they still have to do it on their own. So although not a completely level playing field, it’s about as level as you can make it. Think about how advantage and privilege would express itself through a learning portfolio where you cannot even be certain that the student has completed all the work themselves. Think about the chemistry project of the student who’s uncle is a chemistry professor versus the project of the student who is the first generation of their family to aspire to university.

And imagine if we adopt the American model of evaluating students on their contribution to the community as part of this ‘learning and life portfolio.’ Sounds like a good idea? Well imagine the student from a single parent family who has to travel two hours each day on public transport and works at the weekend to try to make ends meet and compare that student’s capacity to contribute to the community with a wealthy student who has their own car and connections at the local church.

It is easy to call for the abandonment of examinations and the processes surrounding them. It is romantic, liberatory. You will receive a sympathetic, largely uncritical reception. After all, what kind of monster wants to put kids through the stress of exams?

But life has lots of stresses, from applying for a job to asking someone out. Stresses are not necessarily a bad thing. And if you are going to replace exams with something, it’s probably not a good idea to replace them with something less fair and less equitable. It’s worth remembering that the Chinese invented exams as a way of wresting control of the civil service away from aristocratic patronage, not as a means of torturing young people.

Exams exist for a reason. If you want to abandon the ATAR, your alternative needs to bear proper scrutiny.

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7 thoughts on “Abandoning ATAR

  1. Jay Jam says:

    It’s true. Teachers tend to unconsciously rank (and assess) students on how engaged they are in class, rather than what they know or can do. This is the advantage of Stage 6 being more codified in its syllabus and a final anonymous and independent examination. It gives the kids from the wrong side of the tracks a fair shot.

  2. As a highschool teacher, we get a lot of pressure from parents to give students higher marks (they appeal their marks). This would make it even worse.

  3. ES says:

    You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about. The ATAR is calculated using a bell curve. An ATAR of 95 does not mean you are in the top 5% of the state. The median is around 65-70, using your model it would be 50. Get your facts right before beginning an article criticising an ‘ex-principal’ for being out-of-date and misinformed.

    • Mitch says:

      The ATAR distribution is a rough uniform distribution with the same number of students across Australia getting a 98.35 as a 83.95. It generally tapers off in the lower end as it takes into account students with no SSCE or no ATAR and in most states you can’t get an ATAR below 30. An ATAR of 95 is calculated to mean you are in the top 5%.
      Most states calculate an ‘aggregate’ before the ATAR which indeed has a bell curve. This conversion from normal distribution to uniform distributions means that small changes in aggregates have large effects around 70 and small changes above 95 for instance.

  4. The ATAR’s only purpose is for Universities to select students. But, given less than 50% of students (in many school’s it’s less than 35%) go on to Uni, why is it the most important measure in Year 12? In a previous post you said, “Education is about cultural enrichment. It is about knowing the world you inhabit. It’s about political engagement and performing your civic role.” What’s an ATAR got to do with this? The Victorian Education dept defines its 3 aims of schooling – Student Well being, Engagement and Achievement. Why are we ignoring Well-being and Engagement?

  5. Pingback: Yong Zhao and the DHMO fallacy – Filling the pail

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