Opinion: The place of an ATAR score in our schools

Opinion: The place of an ATAR score in our schools

by Bradley Fry

Earlier this year, Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute reported that only one in four Australian undergraduate students are admitted into a course solely based on their ATAR result, which has sparked much debate amongst educators and those in government.

It begs the question, if the ATAR score is not an appropriate measure for three quarters of undergraduate admissions, why is it being treated as the most important outcome of 13 years of schooling?

Proponents of the ATAR system will point to its advantages: its capacity to assess student outcomes efficiently, and its ability to accurately indicate how well students will do at university. Over the past decade, the university failure rate is over five times higher in students with an ATAR rank of under 60 than it is in students with an ATAR rank of 90 or over.

Determining how well students will perform in further studies is vital for both universities and for the students aiming to get into high-demand courses such as medicine, engineering or law.

The concern of many is that the ATAR is lacking a way to recognise the ‘whole person’, as it fails to take into account interpersonal skills, passion, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking – factors which are arguably as important for life beyond school as academics are. And it’s becoming clear that this is something universities are keen to get more insight into too.

Higher education institutions have increasingly been looking at receiving a more complete picture of what students have to offer by using additional entry criteria such as interviews, performances and folios.

If universities can recognise that a student’s personal attributes and skills are just as indispensable as their ability to perform well in exams, then the ATAR system needs to be improved to reflect this.  

Take the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB) for example. The IB Diploma qualification is renowned for the depth and breadth of its assessments, and is designed for students who are motivated by both deep and varied learning. For those unfamiliar with IB, the three core components are: an extended essay, theory of knowledge, and creativity, activity, service –– all of which are aimed at “broadening students’ educational experience and challenging them to apply their knowledge and skills.”

These components along with IB’s assessment structure works to better prepare students for higher education, as assessments also include collaborative projects rather than simply independent work.

The IB diploma is by no means the perfect solution. It’s curriculum requires students to choose a course from each of its six subject areas, which isn’t feasible for every student.

A tangible rank or score is an important indicator of growth and progress, and a benchmark of student outcomes. The process to get there teaches students important attributes such as hard work, discipline and drive. I’m by no means arguing that we need to scrap the lot.

However, it’s about time that a student’s rank took into account their personal and social growth, their willingness to contribute to the community more broadly and their willingness to work within a significant team or group. If universities are interested to know it, surely we can integrate assessment criteria into the ATAR that paints a broader picture of what each student has to offer.

Bradley Fry is the principal of Tintern Grammar, located in Victoria.


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