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ATAR might be past its use-by date

When the principal of a leading private school comes out swinging against the system used to determine which students get a place in a limited number of university courses, there is good reason to sit up and listen.

In an opinion piece published on the Perth College website, principal Helen Aguiar argued the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, commonly referred to as ATAR, was “unravelling the educational principles that are vital to creating a sustainable, innovative future”.

Universities use ATAR to competitively rank students who have completed different combinations of Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE) subjects.

The university admission process, using ATAR as a basis, is often likened to getting into a queue to buy tickets to a sell-out concert.

When places for a particular course are restricted, those with the higher ATARs – like those towards the front of the concert queue – will be more likely to secure a place.

The exception is if additional ‘concerts’ are put on (more course places offered) so that those towards the end of the queue, or with lower ATARs, also get lucky.

Not only does a student’s rank factor in the number of students who sit the annual WACE examinations, ATAR is also based on the number of students of year 12 leaving age in the total population.

A student who receives an ATAR of 70 is judged to be 30 per cent from the top of their age group, not to have received an overall mark of 70 per cent.

In her opinion piece, Ms Aguiar argued one of the flaws of ATAR was that: “A focus on high ATAR scores has been driven by a desire to convince parents they are getting the best value for money in a highly contested private education market.” 

Her argument aligns with the fact some educators and parents increasingly view ATAR as having more of a marketing value than delivering an educational outcome.

This view is underscored by growing disquiet from those in schools that the examination-based ATAR system undermines teachers’ efforts to foster attributes among students deemed essential to their effective participation in society.

Those attributes include collaboration, problem solving, creativity, communication, resilience and innovation, which are all difficult (if not impossible) to measure with a system that makes use of mostly written examinations.

The concern is students will prioritise only that content on which they are tested because of the examination-based system.

Other critics of ATAR suggest that putting a numerical value on subjects as contrasting as dance and chemistry, and then comparing them to assign a rank, is nonsense. How can a subject like dance be compared to chemistry?

Even those in the university sector appear to doubt the efficacy of ATAR amid an emerging view within higher education ranks that the ATAR admissions process is past its use-by date.

Universities have already started to use alternative admission strategies for some of the courses on offer, including incorporating portfolios of work, interviews and school course work, because they believe ATAR does not capture the potential of students to succeed with their tertiary study.

To add strength to that argument, even allowing for the unprecedented impact of the pandemic, in 2020 students were offered places in university courses long before WACE examinations were held. It made the students’ subsequent ATAR results irrelevant.

For some, ATAR may be dying a slow and painful death.

But its supporters are concerned that axing ATAR will have a detrimental effect on education standards.

With no authentic and equitable alternative to compare secondary students across schools, we can expect ATAR to live on for some time to come.

In the meantime, however, we should give some thought to Ms Aguiar’s call that: “A focus on the six Cs – character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking – will far better prepare students for a complex, unpredictable world” than an examinations-based system like ATAR.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA

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