Published April 8, 2020
Is it Time to Scrap the ATAR?
A strong Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is seen as one of the key entry requirements for most undergraduate university programs in Australia.
A student’s ATAR score can determine which university courses they can enter, and at what tertiary institution. In recent years, however, the ATAR has come under scrutiny for being outdated and inequitable. So is it time to scrap the ATAR?
The case for scrapping ATARs
One main criticism of the ATAR is that it focuses too much on one specific measurement, causing high school students to feel as if their ATAR result will determine the course of their lives. The use of any single number as a measurement of one’s academic measurement is clearly too reductive.
The focus on getting a high ATAR may also push young people into making decisions that they are not adequately prepared for, such as choosing subjects that “rank well” rather than the ones they are passionate about or talented in. At the same time, they face an enormous amount of pressure as they embark upon their final exams, trying to excel in this final test regardless of what may be going on at home, if their health is poor, or they face any other challenges.
An overly strong focus on tertiary study and the ATAR also means that young people aren’t being given an accurate picture of the learning pathways they have available to them.
Obtaining a high ATAR is typically seen as the only pathway to higher education, when in reality, fewer than half of all new students who start an undergraduate degree are recent school-leavers, according to Universities Australia.
The remainder of the students apply through other entry processes such as mature-age entry schemes, bridging courses, transfers from vocational education, and pathways for Indigenous students.
University study may also not be the right option for everyone, with the merits of TAFE being overlooked by many due to excessive focus on ATARs and university pathways.
In fact, according to the Shergold review,
of school-leavers have no understanding or only a poor grasp of how to get into vocational education
Indicating that there may be many students presently working on their HSC, VCE or other high school certificate and worrying about their ATAR scores when university may not even be the best option for them.
In fact, the Australian Learning Lectures ‘Beyond ATAR: A Proposal for Change’ report finds that 70% of these learners do not end up entering university or using the ATAR for university entrance.
The students who do enter university with a lower ATAR (under 60) see completion rates of only
Again indicating that university may not have been the most suitable option. The ATAR can also be seen as an inequitable measurement, with there being a bias towards high socio-economic students due to the influence of a school’s overall performance on the students’ scores.
Alternatives to ATAR
The ‘Beyond ATAR’ report suggests that a new framework should be put in place for students between the ages of 15 and 19, focusing on individualised employment and economic opportunities.
One’s high school results could also be influenced by non-academic factors such as work experience, part-time work, community and sports achievements, and entrepreneurialism to get a better picture of the student as a whole. After all, the jobs of the future will require more human skills, instead of the rote cramming students are currently doing.
These learner profiles can then be used by selectors and recruiters to match candidates to work or study, while tertiary institutions could use this information to set minimum course entry requirements.
Some universities are already offering alternatives in the form of admissions tests, the inclusion of personal characteristics in applications and early offers to certain students based on principal recommendations.
It’s important to make students and parents aware that an ATAR is not the “be-all and end all” for pursuing higher education.
The ATAR still meets a university need, due to there having to be a selection rank system for when demand exceeds supply in a particular university course.
At the same time, alternative measures should be considered in order to ensure all young people have the chance to discover the education and career pathways that best suit them.
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