So the ATAR is irrelevant –what next?

Reflections on ATARs are irrelevant, vice-chancellors say – by Henrietta Cook

The demolition of the ATAR seems well under way, so it may be prudent to look ahead to see what may happen, and even what may already be happening.

At first glance the demise of the ATAR will do away with many of the unpleasant aspects of the transition from secondary to tertiary education.  With the ATAR gone so too will the fierce competition across large cohorts, the unreliable published cut-off scores, the need to undertake a broad curriculum, and the ignominy of being reduced to a single number.  But what else will we lose?

With the ATAR under attack a number of foundational aspects of our education system are also under attack: a broad curriculum, portability of aspirations, equity and fairness, and transparency.

A broad curriculum, such as Victoria’s VCE, initiates students into broader cultural aspects of society.  The link that ATAR provides between the VCE and university motivates students to undertake a broad curriculum.  Alternative university selection regimes, such as those used for medicine, tend to be uni-dimensional focussing on limited curricula.  An increase in the use of these uni-dimensional assessments for tertiary selection will lead to a contraction of secondary school curricula; noting that the VCE currently has over 100 subjects including community languages.

Student aspirations can change from the time they commence VCE.  By undertaking subjects that a student is good at and likes within a generic ATAR framework provides students with flexibility.  A student may finish Year 10 wanting to become a doctor and undertake a VCE with a science focus. If that student changes their mind during the VCE to become a lawyer, for example, that can be readily accommodated within the ATAR.  The demise of a common generic ATAR will only give rise to costly proprietary selection tests for sought after university courses.  Each proprietary selection test will require their own preparation regimes which will make it harder for students to change aspirations during their VCE, their gap year, or even early tertiary studies.

Equity and fairness are paramount in the current VCE and ATAR process.  Within the VCE students are able to demonstrate their effort and competence in a range of subjects and through a wide range of assessment types.  The VCE processes – including double marking and moderation between school based and central assessments – provide for fair scores and ATARs that are blind to matters such as socio-economic and cultural background.  While processes such as interviews and portfolios are likely to provide relevant information for university selection, they are also more prone to selection bias.  For example, it’s not hard to imagine a dilemma for a medical degree selection panel when two students are equal except background. If one candidate’s parents were both doctors while the other unskilled refugees we might all imagine which one the panel would choose. But the transparency of that selection will diminish, with a potential loss of equity.

Given that the ATAR is common to most secondary school students in Australia it provides a great source of population statistics for monitoring things such as equity. It also provides some guidance to students on where different university courses sit in terms of demand.  Although these guides are necessarily imprecise given that universities supplement ATARs with interviews and the like.  The ATAR also allows for the tracking of students to enable reporting on matters such as equity. That is, while the awarding of the ATAR maybe fair in terms educational achievement, the distribution of the ATAR may reveal certain inequities in our education system. The ATAR thereby provides a valuable input into political discourse.  The abandonment of the ATAR, and a move towards proprietary selection regimes, will remove this transparency as the requirement to report will diminish.  As the ATAR diminishes Australians will have diminished political recourse to tertiary selection and instead will need to seek market remedies to selection issues. This does not auger well for a fair society.

The roots of the ATAR go back to the 1960s, a time of full employment and high demand for university graduates.  Merit, equity and transparency were becoming important as Australia saw itself as becoming more egalitarian leaving behind its class-based English roots. It was a time when any student with ability and initiative could become whatever they wanted to become regardless of background.  This led to a prosperous and socially mobile generation. The 2010s are different. Employment is a lot softer and the clear career options of fifty years ago no longer exist. The focus on merit, equity and transparency has moved to more market driven dynamics.  This has led to an increased focus on gaming the system and attaining branded cache rather the pursuit of knowledge and personal aspirations.

The power of the ATAR to enfranchise students and to link them to a vast world of possibilities is demonstrated by the efforts of Casimira Tipiloura (see SMH article). Casimira is the first Tiwi Islands student to graduate with and ATAR.  The sense of celebration accompanying this effort surely points to what Australia is, and could become.

Australia’s education system is being put in a precarious place with the sustained attack on the ATAR. The easy option is to ditch the ATAR and to leave it to an open market. This is likely to lead to diminished transparency and fairness. Let’s hope that instead effort will be taken to ensure that the ATAR and its functions are improved so that Australia remains the country of the fair go. Something that we can no longer take for granted.