The silent tragedy of NAPLAN, students reported in misleading bands

The release of international reports on education as well as NAPLAN have placed teachers under much pressure. Most of this pressure arises from innuendo, or what statisticians call correlations. Is this pressure warranted?

NAPLAN reporting of student abilities is unreliable. This is likely to have tragic effects for some students. These individual tragedies are largely silent except to the student. The dubious accuracy of NAPLAN results questions the fairness of recent media reports that label students as big improvers, coasters, and strugglers.

NAPLAN reports student results as dots within bands numbered from 1 to 10. That these dots are solid conveys a sense of certainty, a certainty not matched by the mathematics. It is normal practice in statistics to show a confidence interval.  For example, a 90% confidence interval would show a range in which we are 90% confident a student’s ability is located.  NAPLAN does not report these confidence intervals for individual students.

Margaret Wu (2016) finds that if NAPLAN included confidence intervals, it would not be possible to confidently locate a student in a particular band. That is, around one in ten students is being reported in the wrong band. This effect is random and potentially has tragic consequences.

Over one million students do the NAPLAN tests so there are over one million stories. Once the unreliability is considered new stories emerge for our improvers, coasters and strugglers. Improvers, for example, could simply be those students reported below their level one year, and above their level the next. Most students would be coasters. In statistics, this is regression to the mean.

While most students would receive a NAPLAN score close to where they should, about 10%, or more than 100,000 students, receive a misleading message. This includes students who may have tried hard to improve, only to be randomly reported below their real level. It also includes students who are coasting, but are randomly reported as excelling. Both types of misleading messages affect student motivation. That these little tragedies are occurring in large numbers is likely to be undermining Australia’s international performance.

NAPLAN doesn’t assess curriculum, it only  “broadly reflect aspects of literacy and numeracy within the curriculum in all jurisdictions” (ACARA, 2016). If teachers were to teach only ‘aspects of curriculum’, and provide student feedback in the haphazard fashion of NAPLAN, they would be ridiculed.

Teachers are being held accountable to dubious statistics. For example, the American Educational Research Association (2015) strongly cautions against the use of value-added-models. Yet Australia reports student progress without reservation or qualification on the My School website ( This is not in the interest of students, teachers, or schools. In whose interest this reporting is occurring remains opaque.

Australia’s education measurement industry is a plagued with vested interests. With over 300,000 Australian teachers, everybody wants a piece of the pie. Teacher training, teacher supply, and teacher development provide commercial opportunities. This feeding frenzy is a disgrace and should stop.

addendum: Link to my rejoinder to ACARA’s Twitter response

ACARA. (2016). NAPLAN Achievement in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy: National report for 2016. ACARA: Sydney.

American Educational Research Association. (2015). AERA Statement on Use of Value-Added Models (VAM) for the Evaluation of Educators and Educator Preparation Programs [Press release]

Wu, M. (2016). What national testing data can tell us. In B. Lingard, G. Thompson, & S. Sellar (Eds.), National testing in schools: An Australian assessment. London: Routledge.

PISA is about education systems, not teachers

Education can be talked about in two ways, as a culturally lived experience, or as a commodity. It’s like marriage, you can talk about the depth of the relationship, or talk about the size of the ring. As we begin to digest the latest round of international reports on educational achievement we have a similar choice. We can discuss the lived experience of students and teachers, or simply discuss the numbers. This article focuses on the culturally lived experience of education.

Assessment is universal in education. It can be as simple as a teacher asking a student “are you ok?”, or as complex as an international assessment program. Both show a concern for students and demand a response. Teacher assessment demands a response from teachers, and international assessment demands a response from systems.

Those that consider education a commodity will look for that golden nugget, that vital statistic that explains, and brings kudos to the finder. Those that consider education a complex cultural process will know that these statistics are a faint echo of a multiplicity of intersecting systems. They see the diversity of interests that go into making a school, a classroom, and learning happen.

Seeing children struggle can be painful, particularly for teachers. Some will seek to relieve feelings of guilt by conjuring a LouAnne Johnson from Dangerous Minds. These silver bullet solutions are consistent with our own educational experience –  where one good teacher changes our lives.  Some gladly proffer a LouAnne Johnson, for a fee. Others recognise that these initiatives are superficial with no system impact. It only leads to marketing and publicity that demeans the broader teaching workforce.

Education systems are complex.  There are legislative complexities, with different legislative frameworks for the early years and for the school years. There are jurisdictional complexities between state and federal governments. There are many systems for managing teachers and managing finance. There are also complex information systems, building and infrastructure systems, payroll systems, curriculum systems, assessment systems, and various support systems. Each with its own jurisdictional and legislative complexity. Each with its own problems and levels of both competence and incompetence. These systems cater for over 3 million primary and secondary students across Australia.

Most in education work hard and are dedicated to doing their best. Particularly teachers, who bear the sins of systems, the sins of students, and the sins of colleagues. Teaching is hard, its emotionally draining, tiring, and often quite isolating.  Opportunities for teacher professional development are sparse compared to corporate careers, making diffusion of innovation difficult. Yet teachers are exposed to high levels of control, monitoring, and auditing.  Nevertheless, most teachers work in good faith and embrace systems, explain them when required, and apologise for them when they fail. They are primed for the sucker punch.

The sucker punch comes every couple of years when international test results such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS are released. Teachers react to such media storms as they would a bushfire that has burnt their school.  Teachers first internalise the bad news, then frame hope, then look for lessons to be learned. This makes them prone to attacks from commentators, researchers and think tanks. Teachers react in good faith by listening for lessons, and their instinct to defend education is deliberately misconstrued by some as recalcitrance. Teachers are not to blame, systems are.  Teachers are vulnerable.

Some believe that over two hundred thousand teachers can, and are, conspiring in an ideological plot. Various quick fix solutions are offered. Perhaps an ideological fix, a silver bullet teaching approach, a handful of glamour young wiz bang teachers, or a career restructure. All these suggestions fail to take into account the systemic nature of education. These suggestions are in the main glib, and cast teachers or teaching as the problem, they demean the profession and are hurtful towards those in it.

Suggestions are often portrayed as ‘strategic’, but this is misleading as they are mostly bereft of strategy and better characterised as opportunistic.  They often use hard data such as PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS and NAPLAN, but lack the sort of finesse encouraged by strategic thinkers like Henry Mintzberg. Instead they just rehash data and add spin, often with a vested interest. They often proffer simple quick fix solutions from overseas, in doing so they ignore the strategic work of Michael Porter, who argues that in order for nations to be competitive they must develop capacity and appropriate industry structure.  Those offering solutions from overseas have greater interest in arbitrage than education.  Then there are those that ignore Mark H. Moore’s work on authorising environments, and fail to take into account the legislative and jurisdictional complexities of the quick fixes they propose. In being blind to the systemic nature of education, they only see the teacher, and blame them. Then there are those proposing mindless assessment, without regard for system complexities, as shown by delays in getting NAPLAN online. These suggestions by commentators, think tanks and researchers are devoid of rigour.

Systems need to respond to the latest round of testing results, not teachers. This necessarily requires structured engagement from intersectional interests across the system. Australia could revisit outcome focused education.  Outcomes focused education is when abstract educational measures are used as economic proxies in a neoclassical economic supply and demand sense. Australia has been doing this for a number of years, using data from programs such as NAPLAN, PISA and TIMSS to control the work of teachers through markets.  This has been at the expense of a concern with educational inputs such a syllabus, curriculum, teaching practice and so forth. There is much assessment for monitoring, but not much assessment for providing useful information to teachers. The neoclassical economic approach to education appears not to be working.

Another possible area to look at is transparency of vested interest.  While there are good arguments for competition for services such cleaning contracts, the argument for competition in education is less compelling. Nevertheless, the rise of markets and technology within a relatively buoyant economy creates an educational environment with intense competition. Particularly for services such as testing.  It is often difficult to decipher if calls for more testing are motivated by educational interest or by vested financial interest. Particularly given the significant amount of cross organisational board membership and financial interests in the sector.  These interests span government, not-for-profit, and private sector organisations as well as universities. The lack of transparency could be draining the energy out of the education system and be causing Australia’s educational decline. It’s an area worthy of inquiry at the governmental level.

Given the expenditure on education, economics is an important consideration. David Gonski’s report on funding is a good example of how PISA and NAPLAN data provide a useful broad brush for identifying issues. The recent Productivity Commission report had similar conclusions and draft recommendations relating to data. But it was disappointing that the Commission did not make a greater effort to look at the sector and industry structure. There is little depth to these analyses from an industry perspective.

Teacher education is another area rife with issues, not because of the people working in it as often portrayed by simplistic commentators. Teacher education has complex jurisdictional issues in a climate of higher education reform and the rise of markets. Teacher education should be an arena of intense cooperation, but the rise of markets often means Deans of Education need to compete with each other. Academics too are often torn between servicing the broad needs of teachers, and servicing the specialised needs of academic publishing for career progression. Educational leaders could be addressing this issue, but ignore it perhaps due to vested interest. Particularly as private players are seeking entry to this potentially lucrative market, in often opaque ways.

The obsession with teacher and teaching quality is puzzling. It demeans the individual for faults of the system. Rather than teacher quality, there are bigger issues with many teachers teaching out-of-field through no fault of their own, particularly in mathematics and science. There are also structural issues with teachers on short term contracts. These are industry wide structural issues, not the individual teacher, or teacher education, issues.

Education is a complex system for which teachers and teacher educators are the public face. However, international testing and reporting do not address these vulnerable teachers. Teachers will naturally be curious and gain much from reading the reports. However, the purpose of these reports is to hold the system to account and to inform policy development and reform.

terpodcast on which this blog is based

What is outcome focused education?

Outcome focused education is not so much an approach or philosophy. It is remarkable for what it lacks and is akin to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’.  It has two components, neoclassical economics and Rasch-based measures. It lacks a focus on curriculum.

The knowledge and skills valued by society are traditionally determined by policy-makers in consultation with stakeholders who implement systems to develop and deliver curricula consistent with community needs, expectations and values. Teachers, relevant organisations, and government authorities work together to generate shared meanings that are expressed through curriculum. However, it is these activities that are increasingly missing from an outcome focused approach to education. This void becomes manifest when educational issues are identified and solutions are proffered from overseas.

Seminal developments in both the Rasch Model and neoclassical economics come out of Chicago. While George Rasch was originally from Denmark, it was at the University of Chicago that researchers such as George Wright and Australia’s Geoff Masters made seminal developments during the 1980s.  The Rasch model is mathematically elegant, and perhaps even beautiful in its simplicity and generalisability. It is a model that informs assessment measures using link items with wide horizons. PISA measures, for example, have horizons over participating countries and over time. Similarly, NAPLAN measures have horizons over Australian states and over time. For trend reporting, these horizons are necessarily anchored, and for PISA and NAPLAN they are anchored on conceptions of knowledge defined in the initial cycles of PISA. So while the measures were good at the time, and remain very relevant, they haven’t evolved much in consideration with things such as the internet and graphic calculators.

While PISA initially made a big effort with its testing material, good content is not really required for using the Rasch Model. George Wright lauded the Rasch model on the basis that it transcends the questions, and transcends the measuring instrument.  So educational content is not so important for Rasch. This is reflected in NAPLAN for example, with ACARA only claiming that NAPLAN broadly reflects aspects of literacy and numeracy within the curriculum across the states and territories. So NAPLAN doesn’t actually assess curriculum, just somewhat assesses curriculum. Due to the need to report trends, NAPLAN is anchored in aspects of curriculum from several years ago.

The beauty and the pernicious of the Rasch model is exemplified in the diagram below. It illustrates two students doing a rudimentary mathematics test. Student A can do all four operations but only with small numbers, Student B can only do two operations but with both high and low numbers. Yet their scores are the same, and their Rasch measures would also be the same.


What is remarkable about this example is that based on the Rasch scores these students are the same.  That is, in more complex assessments such as NAPLAN with a set of broader tasks, similarly varying skill profiles are not able to be detected. Rasch measures are not useful for determining what a teacher should teach next. These measures are only useful at a system level. Teachers are left to scramble in the dark. They may be implored to “dig into the data”, but that well is really dry; there is no more information there. NAPLAN doesn’t provide the sort of information a teacher needs to target or differentiate teaching.

NAPLAN and PISA are useful for system management in a broad brush economic sense, they provide a means for bureaucrats, think tanks and pundits to meaningfully talk about education.  They provide a link to neoclassical economics by providing proxies for output in the supply and demand equation. They are used in reports by Gonski and the Productivity Commission. They are also used by think tanks such as the Grattan Institute, and Mitchell Institute.  It is noticeable that these reports generally lack reference to curriculum documents or pedagogy. In this way, think tank commentary is both out of date and out of context. It is meaningful in that these data are the best data available at the system level, but most commentary is vacuous discussion about numbers, not meaning. Everybody feels like an economist when they talk using PISA and NAPLAN data, and nobody feels like a teacher.

NAPLAN and PISA are not useful for talking about students or teachers, mainly because these tests don’t reflect the work that they are engaged in. Teachers and students are engaged in curriculum, while neither NAPLAN or PISA are.

Teaching is a rare profession from a Human Resource perspective.  Their work is judged on measures that have nothing to do with their roles.  Further, any overt attempts at achieve targets is frowned upon, even called cheating.  I often wonder how long it will be before this house of cards is formally challenged in the courts.


Is this the end of outcome focused education?

There will be much media reporting in the next few weeks arising from the recent release of PIRLS and TIMSS, and the imminent release of PISA. Should the results be good, some will credit system management, others will credit teachers and teacher educators.  Should the result be bad, these positions will of course be reversed.  The position taken basically boils down to one of two beliefs. One belief is that 250,000+ teachers are capable and actually engaging in some sort of conspiracy, while a more rational alternative is that results are products of the system.

To date, the commentary from think tanks and peak bodies have been remarkably shallow.  They do not do the strategic work they purport to do.  They tend to blame teachers, teacher educators, or ideology, and proffer suggestions for faded educational fads from the past, such as synthetic phonics, new forms of assessment, a particular product (buy 5 Fingers Literacy now for only $9.99!).  Such commentary is both superficial and unhelpful, with teachers generally already doing their best to incorporate useful practices to provide balanced, inclusive approaches.

As an aside, among the more insidious suggestions tend to be small impact projects that generate publicity. Examples include exiting disengaged teachers at $50,000 a pop, or placing selected graduates straight into the classroom. These types of initiatives have very little system impact, but tend to do well for those managing them, and create much shade for the rest of 250,000+ teaching workforce.

Economists also seek to provide a reasoned response, but they rely on PISA and NAPLAN data. The big problem with these data is that they have reified conceptions of knowledge. This is because they rely on link items and equating techniques. Unfortunately, while economists understand things like Net Present Value, they don’t understand educational assessment and how it evolves over time and how it has context. So, for example, PISA is using conceptions of mathematics and science before the age of Facebook, twitter and YouTube . They do not reflect Australian curriculum or the work teachers are expected to do. Oh well, economists do talk.

But it’s the system, and systems have inertia with much lag and lead, and here the problem reveals itself. Australia is about 20 years down an education trial of outcome focused education, and this trial is miserably failing.

Forward thinking educators have seen this coming of course, but over ten years ago, on November 22 in 2005 in the Australian newspaper, Geoff Masters made an emphatic defence of outcome focused education. In that article Masters said that it was no longer sufficient to know that teachers are teaching the syllabus. Instead, he advocated for an outcomes focus with measures of what students are learning. At that time, Masters claimed that there was no evidence of a plunge in Australia’s education achievement, as teachers were claiming at the time.

Masters made two missteps.  The first was that he called Australia’s trend too early as it takes 9 years between cycles to establish reliable trends on PISA. This is because, for example, Reading was a major domain in 2000 and again in 2009. Masters made his call after only 5 years of PISA when trends were not yet reliable. The second consequential misstep, is that Masters’ call for a more outcome focused education was heeded, and what started in Victoria during the 1990s as the LAP, and then the AIM, was taken up nationally as NAPLAN in 2008. And here we are, 20 years of outcome focused education, and this mess.

Masters, an eminent exponent of the Rasch model, is of course not to blame for Australia’s demise.  He is informed by an elaborate coterie of interests. This coterie is constructed through cross board memberships and project collaborations, and ranges across interests from the private to the public sector. It includes governments, educational providers and universities.  This coterie has had much to gain from an outcome focused approach to education.  Outcome focused education is ostensibly self-managing, and the move away from the focus on inputs to outputs has seen a demise in the focus of curriculum and ideas. Much of Australia’s meaning making infrastructure has been gutted, and continues to be under attack, from those advocating and strategizing for a continued focus on outcome focused education. These include the demise of subject associations and restricted funding to curriculum bodies.

So as the debate continues, and people start laying the blame, perhaps we should start to focus on the various system coteries and beneficiaries, and not to simply lay the blame at teachers and teacher educators, which are already among the tightest regulated fields in Australia.

Just don’t expect these arguments to come from think tanks and related organisations. Check their boards, their backers and their networks. Unfortunately, don’t expect teachers to articulate it either, for one they are too busy helping students getting band aids, taking music, counselling children, dealing with crises or writing reports. Sure teachers get it, but they get it intuitively, they don’t have the language or the time. They rely and expect system mangers to articulate and argue for them, and on this they have been poorly let down by coteries of vested interest.

The writing genre of responding to international achievement reports in education

I’d like to start by saying that I’m a nice person, not like all those other nasty commentators, by proposing something small and manageable. I just want to highlight that I’m not part of the feeding frenzy created by this latest report.

I’d like to begin by establishing my credentials as someone who cares. I will do this by talking about disadvantaged students identified by this study.  I will do this using devices such as the socioeconomic gradient, and how certain groups are overrepresented in some band or other.  By doing this, you will know I care, and that I’m looking out for the little person, whoever they may be.  I will also be using statistics which establishes my smartness and that I know about these things.

At this point I’m generally out of ideas. But everybody knows that education has teachers as well people teaching those teachers, so I’ll just have a crack at all of them.

It’s good to pick on teachers. School buildings, curriculum, school location and the like are pretty boring. So I’ll avoid them.  I also have no idea how to implement anything, teachers do this right? I don’t understand systems, system managers, public policy and industry structure – that’s for boffins. While I talk at the system-level, I don’t really know what system-level means. Lucky I care so I don’t have to talk like a manager.

Then I’ll drag up some good idea from the past that has faded. I will present them as my own new idea. Or I’ll promote something that will benefit my company or my friend’s company. Maybe something about phonics, assessment, methods of instruction, or just something plain old zany like ‘teach like bushranger’.

I will blame the inertia in the system on all those bad people. You might know them as those other people, those ‘post’ people responsible for post-truth. Whenever I can’t explain myself I will blame teachers and other bad people.

I will finish with a platitude, perhaps a need to look more at the data. Teachers should manage the change though; they get 3 days of professional development per year right? That should do it! Those bad teachers (not the teachers that are reading this, they are good teachers, those other teachers are bad).

My older and younger brother

An allegory on German Philosophy

This story is about my chaotic family, in particular my two older brothers. We will call them the older and younger for now.  My older brother is a very tidy person who values logic and reason but he can be excessively orderly and fussy.  My younger brother is quite a contrast, he’s very likeable and creative but he likes a smoke and a drink and his life can get pretty chaotic.

I could tell that things were going to be different for our family from an early age.  The first time was when the older brother was still a kid.  He went to his best mate Peter’s birthday party and took the younger brother along also. The younger created a real fuss by driving Peter’s mum, along with other women at the party, so mad with his special herbs that she was tricked into cutting off Peter’s head. A pretty violent death for old Pete, and we soon had to slink off home to regroup.

To keep us occupied, our mum gave us a machine to make words and books.  Dr Immanuel came along and gave us some lessons.  The older took a real interest in the book machine. He enjoyed writing about his ideal world and sharing those ideals with others.  But it wasn’t long before the younger started kicking up trying to gain attention by romantically going around dancing, playing music and making art.  Tension remained within the family so mum got Dr Friedrich in.  Dr Friedrich thought our family the ants pants and capable of doing all sorts of things.

I’m not sure how helpful Dr Friedrich was though.  Mum had just bought a new set of kitchen appliances when our neighbour Alf started having trouble with his housemate. My brothers thought it a good idea to just throw the troublesome housemate straight into mum’s new oven.  Dead as doornail, and our neighbour Sam across the road was furious.

Sam gave us a deserved hiding, and while we took our medicine Sam developed his own issues. First Sam became a good friend of the older who helped him make a nice picket fence and some fancy rockets. This soon got boring and then Sam took an interest in the younger.  This led to some good parties for a while with good music and lots of peace and harmony as well as lots of those funny smokes.  But all that came to a sudden end when a bunch of Sam’s drug induced girls started randomly killing people again, in particular an attractive young actress who was pregnant with her first child at the time. It was a horrible end to the party.

Now mum has got us a new toy to occupy us called the internet, the book machine has become boring.  At first this internet was a lot of fun but now tensions are emerging again. The older brother likes the internet for things like study, but he’s also a bit of a snoop and he’s using it to control other people’s lives too.  The younger, well, he’s always liked sex and spends most of his time making and looking at pornography when he’s not whipping up social storms.  It’s all seems like fun for the moment, but I think there will be trouble ahead if mum doesn’t do something.

But I don’t know what mum should do.

My older brother is Apollo, the younger is Dionysus.


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.

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.

Eternal Education Headlines

These things we consider known and self-evident and no longer require research effort:

  1. Australian educational performance is precipitously declining
  2. The achievement gap between students from rich and poor backgrounds is growing
  3. Australian students are being left behind by Asian students
  4. Markets are ruining education
  5. Think tanks are ruining education
  6. The Traditional versus Progressive debate will be over when everybody starts listening to me
  7. All educational debates will be over when everybody starts listening to me
  8. Pearson are bad, how can I get a job with them.
  9. Teaching is not that hard, why are people making it so difficult.
  10. If only everybody knew where students are in their learning.

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.