ATAR – it’s about fairness, not prediction

There is a tradition across the political spectrum to attack institutions like the ATAR.  These attacks come in two flavours. The ‘right’ attack elites for imposing artificial social engineering, the ‘left’ attack systems for imposing arbitrary rules that erode liberty. Then there are commentators who confound these arguments to generate media storms of no substance.

We are currently witnessing a flurry of attacks on the ATAR, an institution that has evolved over several decades to provide exiting secondary students with enfranchisement to Australia’s tertiary educational intuitions.  The ATAR provides a relatively transparent national clearinghouse where students can use their secondary schooling outcomes to open up conversations with tertiary institutions throughout the country.

A consistent complaint about the ATAR relates to its lack of predictive power for future academic success.  This complaint demonstrates a fundamental misconception of educational effort. When teachers and students make an above average effort to achieve an ATAR they are in effect seeking to defeat predicted behaviour.  Similarly for universities where students and lecturers make varying degrees of effort to defeat predicated behaviour. The motivation for much educational effort is social mobility, to transcend one’s background for a more enlightened and prosperous future. It is the variability of this educational effort that makes the ATAR a less than ideal predictor.  What the ATAR seeks to do is fairly recognise educational effort.

The demand that ATAR be an accurate predictor of future academic success is a dangerous one.  From a statistical point of view there are a range of background variables that can predict academic success. These include sex, socio-economic background, ethnicity, and a range of other factors. These variables are reliably used by studies such as PISA and TIMSS to evaluate the fairness of education systems. These variables are also often used in value-added models and measures, notwithstanding that there are many cautions on the use of such measures (see AERA).  These variables could also be used to enhance the predictive validity of tertiary selection.  But enhancing the predictive validity of tertiary selection through such psychometric techniques would only deny opportunities for students with disadvantage who make an effort to overcome that disadvantage.

Another feature of the ATAR is that it looks to both the past and to a future.  Primary and secondary schooling is about more than further education and careers.  A sound education seeks to make well-rounded citizens capable of making a civil contribution as well as being capable of living subjective meaningful lives. So when a student reads Shakespeare as part of a secondary level English credential it is read not solely for furthering educational and career prospects but also to be initiated  into broader aspects of society. By valuing educational effort across a broad range of curriculum the ATAR contributes to a civil society. This contrasts to the growing trend of uni-dimensional selection regimes.

As an institution open to public scrutiny and accountability, the ATAR is highly visible and easy to attack for those seeking a sensational story. The public transparency of the ATAR contrasts to the opaque nature of competing selection regimes, such as those used in fields as medicine, that can be costly and which play no role in informing the broader national debate on educational equity.  Proprietary selection regimes also tend to be uni-dimensional with a greater focus on predictive validity rather than broader learning.  As the use of these proprietary selection regimes increases the transparency and public accountability will diminish as will the broad curriculum of secondary education in Australia.

Many attacks on public institutions can be framed in the psychological terms of the present and munificent ’good mother’ and the absent and scarce’bad mother’ that we experience as children  As we mature, we integrate these two views and recognize the competing priorities  into an integrated whole. Many of the attacks on the ATAR simply seek to kill the bad, but in doing so will also kill of the good emancipatory interests that the ATAR provides for.  The death of the ATAR would simply leave students to the vagaries of wolves in the marketplace, or throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The competing interests of diversity and uniformity underpin much of the misunderstanding of the ATAR.  The ATAR seeks to integrate the idiosyncratic nature of each state’s secondary credentialing regime.   There are different subjects, different assessment processes, and different reporting mechanisms within each state.  There are independent schools, public schools and Catholic schools that need to be catered for.  There are also non-state based credentialing institutions such as the International Baccalaureate that need to be integrated into the ATAR.  Then there are mature age students, and others who haven’t completed a Year 12, who also seek an ATAR.  The ATAR needs to accommodate all this diversity into a single ranking useful for universities.

Another misunderstanding is that the ATAR is a monolithic hegemonic system. Instead, the ATAR is a central clearing house where prospective students and institutions connect.  Within this system students and institutions have autonomy. The ATAR exists to provide a streamlined conversation between prospective students and institutions.  Some institutions, with the motivation and resources, will supplement information provided by the ATAR with reviews of portfolios, through auditions, and interviews. These conversations may also involve discussion of various pathways that a student might undertake to achieve their goals. These negotiated outcomes that consider both the needs of the student and institution make the published ATAR cut-off necessarily unreliable.  Furthermore, the ATAR can make no demand for universities to use it fairly. Universities are held to account through their own structures.

The ATAR is not there to be gamed, students seeking to pursue a course or a profession should do so on the basis of what goal they are seeking to achieve. No matter what ATAR is attained there is likely to be a pathway to pursue that goal for students with the aptitude and disposition.  Those seeking to gain prestige by selecting a course on the basis of a published ATAR cut-off are likely to be disappointed.

The ATAR is a crude instrument, it is not a predictor of student success, it is not a measure of value-add by the school, it is not a reliable method for evaluating university courses.  There are other methods for that. Each ATAR belongs to each student in the first instance, as but one signpost in life’s journey of hopes and dreams.  The ATAR should not be perversely appropriated by others for political, marketing or commercial purposes.

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