More confected ATAR outrage – is it time for a grey haired sage?

The ongoing furore surrounding the ATAR is based on confected outrage rather than reason.  While the outrage is based on small grains of truth, the outrage also reveals misunderstandings and contradictions that are particularly destructive.

There are calls for an ATAR crackdown, and apparently Minister Birmingham is set to announce one soon. But what does this mean? Is it more bureaucracy, more centralisation, or just time to bring in a grey haired sage to contain and placate the debate?

ATAR is a rank, not a standard

Each ATAR is derived from a statistical process and gives a ‘best guess’ of where each student is in relation to all other students in the cohort.  The ATAR is a rank that makes no reference to any standard.  Reference to a standard is not possible as the ATAR represent studies undertaken in different state jurisdictions each with different subject descriptions and assessment regimes.

So an ATAR score of 30 is only an indication, or best guess, of where a student is in relation to the student body, and not what a student has achieved or is able to do. So when Asafa Powell came last in the 2012 Olympics 100 metre final, his rank was in the bottom 20 percent for that race, but that still makes him a pretty fast runner.

Further, as an annual ranking mechanism, the ATAR is not able to monitor any trends of student achievement against objective standards. Such objective evaluations can only be conducted by programs such as TIMSS, PISA and NAPLAN.

A national exit credential that explicitly reports against a standard is possible, but this would require a considerable bureaucracy and agreement among the states.

Politicians, bureaucrats and commentators who conflate ATAR with explicit educational standards are simply wrong. The ATAR only provides a fairly derived indicator of rank.

Politicians, bureaucrats and commentators who seek to implement national standards at the secondary school level are in fact calling for the establishment of a large new bureaucratic process. Such proposals have merit but these need to be balanced against other priorities.

ATAR is an indicator that does not tell the whole story

There is a persistent contradiction in much of the commentary of the ATAR.

On the one hand there is an argument that the ATAR is an indicator that does not provide an accurate indication of student potential. This view is supported by the comments of various vice-chancellors (Dawkins VUKristjanson Swinburne) who argue that evidence in the form of interviews and portfolios are also considered for selection.  It is the fact that some universities are willing to consider this additional information which can make published ATAR cut off score an unreliable indicator of the effort required by students to secure selection.

That the ATAR is simply an indicator that does not tell the whole story makes the critique of universities who admit students with low ATARs meaningless.  That is, when a student with a low ATAR is admitted to a university course the likelihood is that they have been able to gain admission through the provision of additional evidence.

Politicians, bureaucrats and commentators who argue that the ATAR is a poor indicator of student achievement and at the same time criticise universities for admitting students with a low ATAR are being inconsistent.

Autonomy versus centralisation

The ATAR accommodates credentials across all the states and territories,each with their own subject descriptions and assessment regimes.  The ATAR is provided to students from public, independent and Catholic schools. The ATAR also incorporates the International Baccalaureate and range of other candidates who may not have  participated in a Year 12 credential. The ATAR is used by the full range of universities across Australia.

The ATAR is therefore a meeting place for a range of autonomous individuals, institutions and systems.   Students are free to choose the universities and courses to which they wish to apply, schools are free to prepare their students in any way they see fit, universities are free to select the candidates in the way they see fit. The ATAR therefore provides a transparent means of connecting autonomous individuals.

Politicians, bureaucrats and commentators who demand that universities enforce arbitrary admission standards, or the call for the establishment of common standards, are in fact calling for increased centralisation of control and for the establishment of large national bureaucracies. This runs against calls for more autonomy and needs to be called out as such.

The current ATAR provides an efficient way of linking prospective students with universities. It is a mechanism that respects the autonomy of the states, schools, students and universities.  Demands to change the process are only likely to lead to increased national bureaucracies.

ATAR is for students and no one else

The ATAR provides enfranchisement for students into tertiary admission.  It provides an efficient way of linking students – each with their own emerging hopes, dreams and aspirations – with universities – each with their own mission and vision.  The power of this enfranchisement is demonstrated by the celebrated efforts of Casimira Tipiloura, the first Tiwi Islands student to graduate with and ATAR (see SMH article).  This enfranchisement should not be appropriated by schools for marketing, by universities for marketing, or by politicians and pundits for cheap political gain.

Of course the ATAR can be improved

Of course the ATAR can be improved in terms of the information that it provides to universities and the information it provides back to prospective students. Its fairness and generalizability could also be improved. To achieve these aims would be consistent with Australia’s aspirations to become a knowledge economy. It would also require additional bureaucracies, centralization and agreement across the the states. However the current destructive criticism of the ATAR is only consistent with Australia’s sliding standings within the international educational community.