Could this be the alternative to the ATAR?

Could this be the alternative to the ATAR?

In October, a revolutionary plan to rethink Australia’s secondary education and move beyond the ATAR was unveiled by leading educators, academics and policy experts.

The paper, titled: ‘Beyond ATAR: a proposal for change’, by the Australian Learning Lecture (ALL), report proposes use of a document known as a ‘learner profile’ to replace or supplement simple numerical results such as the ATAR, for all young Australian aged 15 to 19 years.

One education expert says the learner profile outlined in the report could be a way to provide a rich and detailed summary of what a student has learned, which is both flexible but enables comparison between students.

Showcasing students’ strengths
Enterprise Professor Sandra Milligan is a director of the Assessment Research Centre at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

In an article published in Pursuit – a platform on the University of Melbourne’s website that shares expert discussion about cutting-edge research – Professor Milligan said that using evidence from the learner’s time in school would showcase students’ strengths, passions, patterns of capability and attainments.

“Their strengths in particular areas can be highlighted, whether its maths, literature, hospitality skills, entrepreneurship or caring,” she said.

“The learner profile could broaden what is counted as school success which, at the moment, is constrained by systems like ATAR that only capture knowledge skills of the type that can easily be learned in classrooms and tested in exams.”

Professor Milligan said there is currently “little visibility” of the development of general capabilities, or qualities such as know-how, a good attitude or self-reliance.

However, she notes that these are all qualities now advocated by curriculum experts and sought by recruiters, and selectors who want a more sensitive way to match candidates to opportunities in their organisations.

“A central idea of a learner profile is the accumulation of ‘warranted micro-credentials’, or small chunks of learning that are guaranteed by an authority who shows that the holder has actually demonstrated the relevant qualities or attainments,” she explained.

According to, micro-credentials are “certification-style qualifications that individuals choose to study to improve a skill found in a particular industry area.”

Professor Milligan said a micro-credential might recognise an achievement in a school certificate or vocational subject, or a recognised community service or an award in computer programming earned in out-of-school activities.”

“Because they accumulate over time, they add up to a full representation of the attainments, passion and purposes of a person,” she said.

This way of building a profile has other advantages, she said.

“For a start, it can take into account skills learned in places other than the classroom, like work experience or in alternative programs like Big Picture schools or Hands on Learning,” Professor Milligan said.

“Many students already learn in these ways, but their attainments are currently unrecognised. Most importantly, a developmentally based learner profile, built up over time, will empower learners in a way that an ATAR score cannot.”

Greater understanding of learner profiles needed
Professor Milligan said a learner profile can also accommodate the fact that people “learn gradually, over time, in fits and starts, after effort and commitment.”

“Young people should be able to improve through further effort, pivot if they have made a poor choice or if circumstances change, and be able to represent their best selves, regardless of background or opportunity,” she said.

However, she cautioned that designing a learner profile for Australian learners will be no simple task.

“We need to understand that what the profile should look like, and that will depend on what learning is valued by society and how we assess and recognise learning,” she said.

“We will need to involve students, recruiters and selectors in the co-creation of the profile to make sure it is better than the ATAR at representing the knowledge, skills and capabilities that young people need to thrive in a modern world.”

But perhaps the most important consideration, says Professor Milligan, is that the profile will only be trusted to the degree that the micro credentials that make them up are trusted and based on good assessments which reflect real competence.

“ATAR scores and their predecessor have persisted for decades precisely because they are widely trusted,” she said.

“This trust is based on a well-oiled, centralised organisations which ensures that the assessments are comparable, reliable, interpretable and precise.”

Professor Milligan said a range of reviews and enquiries is currently underway or reporting – which could set change in motion.

“The positive response from our report suggests that the idea of the learner profile for all young people seems to have promise,” she said.

“A system which more accurately reflects student achievement and captures their breadth and depth of learning could pave the way for a more equitable future as young people navigate life after high school.”