The well-known shortfalls of the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) were addressed recently by Beyond ATAR: A proposal for change, a report recommending significant changes to the way we admit students into Australian tertiary institutions.
The paper proposed the creation of a "Learner Profile" for each student, showcasing individual skills and extra-curricular participation alongside academic performance. For this to succeed, a radical overhaul of the way we measure achievement in Australia is required.
The ATAR is widely considered a pure measurement of a student's academic capacity. It indicates their position, based on performance throughout year 12, relative to other students in their age group. Universities use the ATAR to select students for admission, particularly high-ranking universities for in-demand courses, such as law and medicine.
In a practical sense, it has significant limitations. The ATAR rewards a student's ability to comply and perform within a competitive system, valuing a narrow set of knowledge and skills. It was described earlier this year by NSW Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott as "a straitjacket around our kids".
The ATAR sits at odds with how we might imagine education as a democratic, free-thinking and critical pursuit dedicated to the development of the individual. Beyond ATAR proposes painting a broader and more detailed picture of students as individuals, considering a student's individual story and providing context to their grades.
In its current form, the ATAR privileges students who present to school with the appropriate academic knowledge and intellectual skills, unfairly marginalising disadvantaged students and those who encounter family, personal or mental health challenges throughout their VCE or HSC. To address its inequities, extensive changes to how we measure and value student learning across both primary and secondary schooling are required.
The Beyond ATAR research reports that "70 per cent of learners will neither enter university nor use the ATAR". And yet, our preoccupation with comparing our students against their peers begins in grade 3.
In recent years, the Australian education system has seen the introduction of reforms that make our system less about the individual student and more about their ability to compete nationally, internationally and against their own classmates. Beginning in primary school, our system relies on de-personalising students, removing as much of their individuality as possible so that they can work towards meeting general benchmarks and standards.
NAPLAN compares students' literacy and numeracy across the country; PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) compares students across participating countries; and My School allows parents to compare achievement data in the absence of contextual information about how the school works with individual students.
Teachers report pressure to prepare their students to perform in NAPLAN, in a high-stakes environment where a school's results are seen to reflect their ability to prepare students to compete nationally. Research has reported that this leads to a narrowing of the curriculum, with schools focusing on what is necessary to prepare students for the tests. This results in inauthentic learning experiences, and greater barriers for minority students. In schools where VCE/HSC achievement is an important marketing tool, students' extra-curricular commitments threaten to steal time that could be spent working towards maximising academic achievement.
Teachers' work is changing within this competitive climate, too. Research has found that teachers measure their value against their students' learning achievement data, and recommendations for best practice are taken from high-performing countries, regardless of their cultural context.
The ATAR is well-established in Australian educational culture as the most valuable measure of a student's academic success. To move away from this would require a cultural shift not only for the purpose of tertiary admission but also to reconsider what achievement means at each year level. Participation in extra-curricular activities and cultivating unique individual skills and dispositions would need to be given equal space and time within students' schooling, alongside their preparation for testing or examination.
We need to be prepared to consider students' capacity to demonstrate qualities not just for their economic value ... but for their value to the individual or to the community.
The Beyond ATAR report suggests a framework-based approach to recognise various forms of student achievement, which could be introduced at younger year levels. However, this would threaten to further entrench social and economic disadvantage, with funding inequity leading to vastly different opportunities available across the public and independent sectors.
We also need to be prepared to consider students' capacity to demonstrate qualities not just for their economic value, or for workforce preparation, but for their value to the individual or to the community. This requires consideration of what it means to be a successful individual, not just a successful learner. This would mean looking to existing policy documents such as the Melbourne Declaration, a broad-ranging plan outlining the crucial skills and attributes of Australian learners, and the Australian Curriculum's General Capabilities, which touches on skills such as critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. For these to hold equal weighting to academic achievement, teachers and schools would need to be appropriately resourced with time, professional learning and support to address these meaningfully.
The Australian education system has an entrenched culture of standardisation, measurement and competitive achievement. This culture is perpetuated by pressure on teachers to improve results in testing mechanisms such as NAPLAN and PISA, and to raise ATAR achievement so that it becomes a symbol of school status. To accomplish real change in how we think about educational achievement, we must be willing to consider removing NAPLAN and other forms of standardised testing and withdrawing our participation in PISA.
While the VCE and HSC offer students an opportunity to select a subject load according to their intellectual and creative interests, the ATAR reduces this rich experience to a stark ranking. If an alternative is to be taken seriously, we will need to entirely rethink our priorities for Australian education.
- Stephanie Wescott is a PhD candidate and teacher educator at Monash University. She previously taught English and humanities in a Victorian government school.
- SMH/The Age