A quick Google search reveals that August appears to be the month for criticisms of the ATAR system to be published. In the last two weeks there have been several such articles in which journalists, academics and CEOs have found the eighth month of the year to be a good time to predict the demise of the ATAR. Timed poorly again this year for the students who are managing their HSC in a pandemic and wondering about whether there will be jobs, opportunities to travel, celebrations of their achievements and schooling and what the university sector they are entering using their ATAR will look like.
ATAR stands for the “Australian Tertiary Admission Rank” and is a number out of 100. Roughly 40-45 students in NSW are placed on the highest-possible rank of 99.95 every year, with another 40-45 on the next rank of 99.90, and so on. The organisation that calculates ATARs on behalf of all NSW universities is called the University Admissions Centre (UAC). Its primary responsibility is to rank all school leavers by achievement so that the Universities can decide to whom they should offer places in their undergraduate courses. To do this, UAC uses a mathematical model (or algorithm) that maps a student’s marks in a subject against the ‘strength of the competition’in that subject in order to create a scaled mark. The best 10 units, which must include at least 2 units of English, form an aggregate score out of 500 which is then used to calculate each student’s ATAR out of 100.
There are many positives to this system of university entry: For the Universities, the ATAR system is relatively quick, cheap and does exactly what they need ~ i.e. rank students across NSW so that they know to whom they should offer places. In addition, UAC claim that “the scaling process is designed to encourage students to take courses for which they are best suited and which best prepare them for their future studies.”(UAC, 2019)
Furthermore, it is argued that students are neither advantaged, nor disadvantaged by choosing one HSC subject over another. UAC also makes the claim that the ATAR is a sound predictor of a student’s success at university. Finally, the ATAR is not the sole piece of information used to decide who to offer university places to. supplementary evidence can be added to a student’s ATAR to create the final ‘Selection Rank’, which is what the Universities use to select students. This evidence might be of long-term health problems, educational disadvantage, high-level sporting achievement, or such like.
All of this sounds great; however, the ATAR has come under sustained criticisms in recent years:
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, is among those that believe the ATAR system is skewing students’ subject choices away from harder ones, in the hope that it will improve their ATAR.
For example, he cites the case in NSW in which the numbers choosing the intermediate Maths Advanced course have declined since 2000, with more students choosing the Maths Standard course, which does not cover Calculus.Given this, Dr Finkel blames the ATAR and Universities for Australia’s ranking in the global PISA Tests slipping in Maths and Science over the past decade.
This leads us to the area of most criticism ~ that the ATAR is a poor process for students who are looking to take a more vocational pathway:It is certainly true that the ATAR process does not make much accommodation for vocational courses. For example, students can only count two units of vocational courses (the so-called ‘Category B’ courses) towards their ATAR, which might push many into the academic Category A courses which do not suit them.
Also, the ATAR system requires marks from traditional internal school assessment tasks and HSC exams. It does not use TAFE-style ‘competencies’ which demonstrate what practical skills a student has gained, or the work experience that they have undertaken. Nor does it measure a student’s ability to practise ‘21stCentury skills’such as collaboration, communication, creativity, adaptability and entrepreneurship
Prof Peter Shergold, Chancellor of Western Sydney University, recently led a federal taskforce to examine the transition from school to tertiary sector. They recommended that the ATAR be replaced by a ‘Learner Profile’which incorporates their ATAR, individual subject results and a “broader range of evidenced capabilities necessary for employment and active citizenship that they have acquired in senior secondary schooling”
However, while many would agree that the ATAR system needs reforming, nothing so far suggested ~ ‘Learner Profiles’, student portfolios, or statistical tweaks~ have gained any traction. For the universities themselves, particularly in the cash-strapped COVID-19 era, the fact that the ATAR system is relatively cheap and easy to administer would suggest that it will be around for a good while yet.
A student at the end of Year 12 is more than an ATAR and finding ways to capture this picture is not an easy task. As pathways post school are becoming increasingly diverse and universities in the rush to get as many students as possible, offer students places as early as August, the ATAR will be under pressure. Schools prepare students for a range of post school options. We want every student to find a pathway post school, not be locked into a path that limits their flexibility and allows them to change their mind. Defining these pathways and providing meaningful options are focus areas for all schools, but let’s not devalue the ATAR just yet until we have appropriate measures in place.
Written by: Mr Philip Fielden (Director of Studies)
Wagner(2008) The Global Achievement Gap; Basic Books; New York
At Newcastle Grammar School, we actively encourage students to think about their HSC subject choices in such a way that they avoid the problems with ATARs that have been listed above: