Tuesday, 2 February 2016

What future for the ATAR? (2016 Term 1 Week 2)

Over the last week there has been a lot of commentary in the mainstream media about the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) and its merits or otherwise as the primary means of determining students' access to tertiary study. Following the revelation that many NSW students are admitted to university despite receiving ATARs below the published cut-off points, a number of prominent voices in the tertiary sector spoke out about their frustrations with the ATAR, including a number of university vice-chancellors calling for it to be scrapped.

The reality is that the University Admissions Centre (UAC) and the individual universities are struggling with the need to have an objective and merit-based system, but also to provide leeway for individual circumstances and nuances. The heart of the challenge is to navigate a way forward that is neither too rigid nor too subjective

However, the challenge has been compounded in recent years by a number of factors. First, the scrapping of capped numbers in university courses by the Federal Government in 2012 provided an incentive for universities to expand their enrolments and, consequently, their government funding. This factor drives universities to enrol more students, with a possible consequence of the lowering of expected entry standards.

Second, high ATAR cut-offs have become a marketing tool for universities, providing an aura of prestige for courses that appear to be hard to enter. This factor drives universities to publish ATAR cut-offs that may not correspond to reality.

Third, the universities want to secure the most able and suitable students. They are increasingly realising that the ATAR is not a strong predictor of success in tertiary study. The ATAR does not reveal some of the more powerful and important aspects of a student's potential and suitability. This factor is leading the universities to seek more information about students through interviews, portfolios, references and other sources.

All of which is to say, over the last few years we have been watching the ATAR system begin to break down. More and more of our Inaburra students are being offered early entry to universities. More and more of them are seeking and receiving bonus points for various reasons. More and more are finding that the apparently firm cut-off scores yield as one leans against them.

What does the future hold for the university admissions process? I expect that the ATAR will remain, but it will be more and more supplemented by other admissions processes, becoming more akin to the USA college admissions system. This change will be more expensive and time-consuming for the universities and it would bring a different sort of pressure on students to acquire the kind of resume that would open doors: volunteering; co-curricular activities; student leadership roles; community engagement etc. Such a shift will bring its own challenges, but that is a topic for another day.

What does it all mean for our current students? Not a lot has really changed. Our aim of shaping life-long learners remains. We place priority on students owning their learning and taking responsibility for their actions. We encourage them to achieve mastery through persistence, to embrace challenge and to overcome adversity. We want them to focus on learning, rather than on gaming the system. And we continue to think that the good life will be measured in more profound ways than the ATAR and by more significant assessors than university admissions processes.

I love the thought that we could do better than use a four digit number as the defining characteristic of an individual at the end of thirteen years of school. We all know that our young people are more than that.

1 comment:

  1. I know that one of the main reasons I took up 4 unit Maths was not because I really REALLY enjoyed Maths, but because of the ridiculous scaling the subject towards my (then) TER score: my 60-70% scores during Year 12 turned into something in the mid to high 90s. Having said that, at university the first year undergraduate maths science course covered pretty much the entire 4 unit syllabus in the first 6 weeks, and I have no idea how those people who didn't do 4 unit Maths coped with it - it made a lot more sense to me that second time around. I suppose that's really just a reflection of the key point of this article, which is that reality of how capable people are is far more nuanced than the raw numbers (or number).