As the end of the year approaches, the question of the relevance of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), is emerging once again. But what is it? Why the criticism? And what’s the alternative?
What’s the ATAR?
The ATAR was introduced to most states in Australia between 2009 and 2010, and shows how a student has performed relative to all other students in that year, on a percentile ranking from 0 to 99.95.
While the ATAR provides a comparable measure and an efficient way to evaluate student admissions decisions, it is becoming increasingly less fit-for-purpose and has a number of negative implications for young people and our education system more broadly.
What are the challenges of ATAR for young people ?
- It’s measures knowledge but not skills
The ATAR tests young people’s knowledge on a range of subjects that they have learnt throughout the school year. In the new world of work where young people are expected to have approximately 18 jobs across 6 different careers in their lifetime our traditional approach of teaching students to ‘ace the test’ will not be enough to help them succeed in the changing world of work. Instead, FYA’s New Work Order report series highlights that young people need to be equipped with a portfolio of skills and capabilities and we need to find new ways to help them build, use and measure these skills.
- It fixates on a single pathway to higher education
One in four domestic undergraduate students were admitted to courses based on their ATAR in 2016. This means universities and students are no longer relying on the ATAR alone as a pathway to higher education. New pathways emerging including, Swinburne’s Alternative Tertiary Entry program, RMIT’s Urban School and ANU’s co-curricular or service requirement provide alternative entry into tertiary education.
- It’s stressful
Final exams, working towards an ATAR and finishing year 12 are proven causes of stress and anxiety amongst young people. The ATAR specifically is considered by many to be an unnecessary stress on young people, and the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education Mark Scott went so far as to call it a “strait jacket around our kids“.
So what are the alternatives?
One alternative being explored recently is learner profiles. A learner profile proposes a common way to demonstrate the skills and capabilities that a young person has developed through school, volunteering, work experience and in other areas of life. It is not limited to one educational institution, and rather describes a broad range of skills, capacities and responsibilities that go beyond academic success.
Recently the All Learning Lecture released a report on this very topic proposing to replace the ATAR with a learner profile, noting that:
“A learner profile is designed to provide a trusted, common way of representing the full range of attainments of young people during their transition years (within school and beyond) across a broad range of domains. The design of this profile should enable any jurisdiction to map and align it to its own representation of learner outcomes and capabilities, as reflected in its curriculum, reporting and certification systems.”
Example of a learner profile
Proposals such as learner proposals are still in their infancy in Australia and need further exploration, but it’s clear that ATAR is not fulfilling its intended use if universities and students themselves are moving away from it.
Instead, we need to think about ways to more effectively capture the portfolio of skills and capabilities that young people develop through all the things they do, whether related to their education or not.