It is not enough to know the score

In The Australian last week, the Grattan Institute urged students to “work hard at school to achieve your best ATAR” because it “is not on its way out.” The advice may be sound for students today, but may not be wise for students in the future. ATAR may not be on its way out, but it should be.

It is good for students to work hard. And as about three quarters of school leavers who go straight to university are admitted on the basis of their ATAR, it is understandable that those aspiring to go to university get very focussed on their ATARs.

It is a sad indictment of our education system that maximising ATAR is the primary focus, rather than following passions.

But it is a sad indictment of our education system that maximising ATAR is the primary focus for far too many students, rather than following passions and preparing for the future by developing their talents and exploring the wide variety of opportunities that are available in diverse tertiary pathways.    

A recent report by Mitchell Institute, Crunching the Number, canvassed the costs and benefits of the ATAR and concluded that we need a serious national conversation about relying less on the ATAR and reducing its effect on secondary education. This resulted in a joint forum with the Australian Learning Lecture (ALL) about improving the transition from secondary to tertiary education, involving many leading thinkers and practitioners from both sectors.

A recurring theme at the forum was that the ATAR has many negative effects. For example, to their credit, leaders of secondary curriculum design are going out of their way to promote developing character and capabilities, such as critical thinking, alongside discipline based knowledge, to reduce reliance on memorising facts and formulas. The focus on maximising the ATAR through Year 12 exams, however, tends to lead to coaching of exam technique, so students memorise answers to questions that are designed to promote critical thinking.

ATAR is not a good predictor of the potential of a large proportion of students.

The same article suggested that the ATAR was also a good predictor of success in higher education. This is contrary to what we see at Victoria University. While higher ATAR students, on average, achieve higher academic outcomes and lower drop-out rates than lower ATAR students, there is a huge variance around these average outcomes, which render the ATAR a weak predictor. VU has largely moved away from the ATAR for admission purposes, instead using alternatives including individual study scores, which have the advantage of being able to be more tailored to students’ proposed study programs.

In other words, ATAR is not a good predictor of the potential of a large proportion of students. More importantly, good universities should be able to reduce the impact of ATAR on students’ futures by providing education opportunities to those, who for all sorts of reasons, did not achieve high ATARs in school. When universities simply continue the trajectory set by ATAR, they fail their mission to change lives, to alleviate the impact of inequity, and to lift people out of the conditions they are born into.

When universities simply continue the trajectory set by ATAR, they fail their mission to change lives.

To the extent that Victoria University, and a number of other universities, including for example, the ANU and Swinburne University are increasingly looking to find better information to identify what students should enter what tertiary education courses, it does offer hope that we will become increasingly less reliant on the ATAR.  It further begs the question of whether in due course we may be able to abandon the ATAR altogether.

To this end, important work is happening to help the secondary education system find better ways of supporting and informing successful student pathways from secondary to tertiary education. One of these ideas is the concept of jagged profiles.

Each child, thanks to the complex interactions between nature and nurture, has a jagged profile of abilities and interests, stronger in some domains and weaker in others. Different jobs and university courses also require jagged profiles of abilities and knowledge, so admissions should be looking for the best fit between the profiles of students and jobs. In other words, universities should look for the “right mix” of abilities and interests for different courses, instead of a generic and simplistic score.

This will require some work from tertiary institutions but we should work hard, to get the best out of students.

This article was originally published in The Australian. Read the original article.

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