Including English in every ATAR is unfair to students with other strengths
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Including English in every ATAR is unfair to students with other strengths

For Year 12 students in NSW, their English mark accounts for at least 20 per cent of their ATAR. Mandating that so much of one’s ATAR must be sourced from one school subject introduces systematic bias against those who are disproportionately more likely to struggle with that subject.

I was fortunate the Year 12 subject with which I struggled the most (and failed!) did not comprise 20 per cent of my university entry mark.

Some students are disadvantaged by the fact English is included in their ATAR calculation.

Some students are disadvantaged by the fact English is included in their ATAR calculation.Credit:Wolter Peeters

As an educational psychologist specialising in student motivation, I am concerned about the effects of this policy on students’ inclination to work towards an ATAR they fear will be undermined, regardless of their efforts, by their English mark. Is this fair when other students’ motivation may be disproportionately boosted when they know their ATAR will be assisted by their English mark?.

Some states and territories mandate inclusion of English in the ATAR whereas others do not, which means students in different states and territories may have different opportunities for university entrance.

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Students may also end up locked out of post-school pathways that have no direct relevance to their Year 12 English mark. For example, their mark may lower their ATAR to the point where they miss the cut-off for a STEM-specific university course.

The texts I studied in Year 12 English taught me things about myself and the society in which I live that other school subjects could not. English occupies an important place in the Year 12 curriculum. I believe it should be mandatory to study it. But I am not sure it should account for a mandatory 20 per cent of a student’s ATAR.

One option is to retain English as a mandatory subject, but to calculate an ATAR that is compromised solely of a student’s best subjects, regardless of what they are. For many students, this will include their English mark.

University courses in science and mathematics may prefer students who do well in these subjects.

University courses in science and mathematics may prefer students who do well in these subjects. Credit:AP

The concern here is students will not try in English once they know it does not have to factor into their ATAR (a challenge well-familiar to all other subjects). Perhaps, then, a student’s Year 12 credential might also report on their satisfactory or unsatisfactory completion of English.

Another option is to calculate an ATAR based on the student’s 10 best units, and to calculate a separate ATAR-E, that includes English. Then universities and employers can decide which measure they will use.

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The mandated amount that English factors into the ATAR could also be reduced; say, from 20 per cent to 10 per cent.

As questions are raised about the utility and transparency of the ATAR and subject scaling , it may be time to also debate one of the major influences on a student’s score: the 20 per cent accounted for by his or her English mark.

An extended version of this article is available on Research Gate. Andrew Martin is a professor of educational psychology at the University of NSW.