ATAR: A Terribly Awful Result?

The article Time to put the ATAR to the test by Adam Spencer raises a number of important questions regarding the future of the ATAR in determining year twelve students’ admission to university.

The ATAR is a rank, ranging from 30.00 to 99.95 which is the raison d’être for many senior school students. This rank provides the basis on which they will judge all past, present and future success. With over 250,000 people applying for places in hundred of courses in the 39 universities in Australia each year, it makes sense to have a tangible yardstick by which to base admission. There exists a number of flaws to this system, however, leading many educators to question the future of the ATAR.

In his article, Spencer highlights that although the ATAR is a reasonable determinant of ‘group aptitude,’(i.e. a group of students who scored in ATAR the 90s will probably outperform at university a group of students who scored ATARs in the 70s) it is less meaningful for comparing students on an individual basis.

Recently, concerns have been raised over students purposely selecting subjects in the hope of maximising their ATAR whilst disregarding courses that will be useful in their intended university course. It is much easier to achieve a high mark in General Mathematics than Mathematics Extension Two, for example. The result of this is that students are ill-prepared for university study. The Victoria Curriculum Assessment Authority, in the Strengthening Senior Pathways Report, emphasised these concerns regarding subject-selection.

“In some instances, decisions about a program of study at the senior secondary level are being compromised by an unhealthy and increasingly unnecessary focus on maximising the ATAR… sometimes at the expense of either enrolling in a wider range of different learning opportunities or pursuing a specialist area of interest and/or excellence.”

ATARs are yet another means by which the cycle of disadvantage can be perpetuated. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds face a range of social and economic disadvantages, such as low quality living environments, limited access to technology, underemployment and under-education of family members, poor health and discrimination.

Whilst ACER suggests secondary school curriculum are not the source of SES inequality in tertiary entrance performance, it is clear there are significant inequities with respect to ATARs and students’socioeconomic status. A study from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education explains that:

“…high SES students who were achieving similar grades to low SES students in Year 9 went on to achieve ENTERs [ATARs] around 10 points higher three years later.”

Which serves to add to existing concerns highlighted in a University of Melbourne report prepared for Universities Australia that there is

“Persistent under-representation of low SES people and Indigenous people in Australian universities”

These are real concerns for all Australians. We cannot pride ourselves on being a nation of equity with an ethos of a ‘fair go’for all where persistent disadvantage is the norm. A country where students in the highest socioeconomic group are the equivalent of two and a half years in front academically of students from the lowest socioeconomic group. A country where students from the lowest SES quartile are eight times more likely than the top quartile to have failed to meet the most basic levels of proficiency in international testing.

ATARs present skewed ‘evidence’of school quality, with schools under ever-increasing pressure to maximise students’scores above all else. Students from Independent schools are 2.7 times more likely to be admitted to university, as Claire Brown suggests at The Conversation, perhaps post codes would be equally useful basis for university entry. The assumption that ATAR scores predict school quality is blatantly wrong. The fact that over 70% of students at James Ruse scored ATARs over 90 is indicative of the type of student enrolled at the college, not the calibre of school leadership or the quality of its teachers (though these factors obviously play a role in Ruse’s continued performance).

Further, arudimentary understanding of the ATAR system leads students to believe that they are in a competition with their classmates for ranks, which encourages negative learning habits and disincentivises collaboration and sharing between peers. Further, the ATAR encourages students to think of themselves solely as a number, and place their worth in that number. This mindset is incredibly dangerous in a demographic already at risk for a vast number of mental health issues and facing enormous pressures from themselves, their peer group, and their parents to achieve highly.

The assumption that ATAR reflects course quality is inaccurate. ATAR is a supply and demand model. A high ATAR is not indicative of course quality: it simply indicates that a large number of students wish to enroll in that particular course. Students feel pressured not to ‘waste’their ATAR points and should enroll in the course with the highest cut-off possible. Hence the (surprisingly?) common lament of “I’m doing law/medicine/dentistry because I got the ATAR.”When I was in year twelve I faced similar pressures. When discussing my intentions to study teaching all-too-often I would hear “but you’re going to get high 90s…what a waste!”

Increasing numbers of students do not even utilise an ATAR as the basis for admission to university. Recent figures suggest half of new students are mature aged and 2/3 of uni students do not have an ATAR. Students are instead using alternate forms of prior learning for the basis of university entry. This includes vocational qualifications, work and life skills, and alternative aptitude and admission tests. Entry to undergraduate medical courses often requires an interview and UMAT examination, whilst entry to performing and creative arts programmes generally require auditions or examinations of students’ portfolios. There exists scope, however, to expand such means of entry to a wider array of courses.

Raising ATAR cut offs has been suggested as a means for improving the ‘quality’ of teaching qualifications and hence generating more quality teachers: feeding into societal (mis)conceptions that a higher ATAR is indicative of a more exclusive and hence more prestigious and desirable course.

Criticisms that admitting students with lower ATARs will ‘dumb down’ the quality of education are inaccurate and misleading. There is a lack of compelling evidence to suggest that students’ who achieve the highest ATARs are the best students, or that the highest quality programs at universities are the ones with the highest entrance scores. Andrew Norton, of the Grattan Institute Higher Education program shows a weak relationship between ATAR and average marks. However, there is a strong relationship between a higher ATAR and completion of a degree. The latter may be influenced by students from lower SES backgrounds being forced to work higher hours in part-time jobs in order to support themselves at university, rather than having the privilege of parents covering their living expenses. In these cases, it is pertinent to reflect that ATARs do not measure aptitude for university study, which is very different from the school environment, no do they predict the ability of a student to achieve with or without effective teaching and support. It is merely a rank.

I don’t oppose ‘measuring’ things, and as a mathematician with a penchant towards quantitative data, it would be foolish of me to cast aside another avenue of data to explore. However, the time has come to acknowledge the shortcomings of the ATAR as a basis for admitting students to university and to look to developing more inclusive, balanced approaches of scoring that encompass these difficulties and better facilitate students’ access to university education.



About madelinebevs

Mathematics teacher and researcher. Runner. I'm excited by mathematics education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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