- What is the ATAR? The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank is a number between 0.00 and 99.95 that indicates a year 12 student’s academic performance relative to all other students in their year level.
- What’s being proposed? Year 12 graduates could be given a “learner profile” that also includes information about each student’s interests, values, and skills, such as communication, caring and creativity.
Victorian education authorities should scrap the ATAR for a less blunt measure of year 12 achievement, say principals who argue it leaves too many students feeling like failures.
The group of more than a dozen leaders from a diverse group of schools say the ATAR is increasingly “not fit for purpose”. They want it replaced with a system that better evaluates students on both academic and personal achievements.
Schools are calling for an overhaul of Victoria’s year 12 assessment system, arguing it is too heavily based on success in high-stakes exams.Credit:Craig Abraham
Record numbers of students are opting out of getting an ATAR and being ranked against their peers, while universities have also begun bypassing the system by making early and non-ATAR offers.
The ATAR is a competitive ranking of VCE study scores between 99.95 and zero that is used for university entry.
The principals, who represent a coalition of public and private schools, have outlined their concerns in a letter to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) and the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC).
The letter, obtained by The Age, argues the system of study scores and competitive rankings is an inadequate measure of each student’s achievements and capabilities, and leaves too many completing school feeling “empty-handed”.
“These arrangements no longer seem fit for purpose for many, perhaps most learners,” the letter states.
Instead, year 12 students should be given a “learner profile” that also includes information about each of their interests, values and skills that are not assessed by the ATAR, such as communication, caring and creativity, they argue.
Signatories include principals from high-fee private schools Carey Baptist Grammar, Camberwell Girls Grammar and Wesley; state schools Fitzroy High, Collingwood College and Greenvale Secondary College; and regional schools Woodleigh, Clonard College and Monivae College.
The number of students completing an unscored VCE is growing annually, indicating more students are unwilling to put themselves through the stress of competing for a university place, the letter states.
Carey Baptist Grammar School principal Jonathan Walter said the ATAR diminished students to a single number.
Figures show 5373 students completed their VCE unscored in 2021, meaning they did not sit exams or receive an ATAR. The data for last year is not yet known.
Universities are also “seeking more and better information about candidates than can be provided in the ATAR, mainly in the interests of better matching candidates to opportunity and increasing diversity of their student intakes”, the letter says.
Those alternative intake schemes are often onerous for students, families and schools, and lack transparency, with no evidence of their effectiveness or fairness, the principals said.
The letter was written after 14 school leaders met with VCAA head Stephen Gniel, and VTAC head Teresa Tjia in November to discuss their concerns.
Carey Baptist Grammar School principal Jonathan Walter, who was at the meeting, said school-leavers were being let down by current assessment and university entry methods.
“The ATAR is such a narrow representation of a student at the end of a 13-year journey. They come out diminished to a single number which doesn’t reflect who they are, the sort of things they can contribute to society or indeed what they value and believe in,” Walter said.
“We just think there’s got to be a much better way of making a more fulsome statement about a student and what they can contribute to the world.”
Walter said students did not necessarily need to achieve a top-flight ranking to get a place in the university course or career pathway of their choice, but often feel as though they have failed if they don’t excel.
Senior students at Woodleigh, one of more than a dozen Victorian schools calling for a new way to measure student achievement.
“I think the system’s failing them in that it’s sending them off on their post-school journey feeling as if they haven’t been successful and they’re not capable,” he said.
“If we were to look at some different measures for students I’m sure we would find that in fact everyone has got something to contribute.
“We’re the only country in the world who ranks our students like this.”
Woodleigh School principal David Baker said schools have a duty to educate today’s students to succeed in an increasingly uncertain world.
“If we are just narrowing in on content knowledge, we’re not preparing them at all,” he said.
Baker said students were looking for more “than to sit in a classroom for 60 minutes and have a teacher talk for 59 of them”.
“They want to collaborate, they want to discuss things, they want to be excited about their learning. Kids are smarter now than they’ve ever been, so they are not just going to sit there and say this is OK, they’re going to keep pushing back and that’s what we’re seeing at the moment.”
The signatory principals are among 38 schools that have joined the University of Melbourne’s New Metrics research project, which is exploring potential ATAR replacements.
The New Metrics project is being spearheaded by Professor Sandra Milligan, director of the University of Melbourne’s Assessment and Evaluation Research Centre.
Milligan said that the pressure on schools to generate high ATAR rankings, often from parents, “washes back into all levels of schooling, generating unhelpful performance anxiety in students, and exerting a negative influence on curriculum and teaching innovation”.
National data points to ways in which the education system, with the ATAR as its pinnacle, serves some students poorly, Milligan said, including much lower year 12 certification rates for boys than girls, declining year 12 retention rates and falling attendance rates.
“On the basis of evidence of this kind, it seems likely that success as defined by the metrics of high examination scores and ranking is for many students unattainable, unappealing, or irrelevant,” Milligan said.
Even for those who do succeed in the ATAR, that success signifies a capacity to pass exams and learn from books, she said.
“The information provided in current certificates is … very thin. It cannot represent a learner’s unique strengths, or show what they have been able to achieve in areas of talent or interest outside the syllabus, or how they have contributed to their community. It says little about who they are, or what they can do as workers or community members.”
VCAA head Stephen Gniel said the VCE supports students to pursue a diverse range of pathways, based on their interests and aspirations.
“ATAR is one measure of their academic achievement but it’s not the only one,” Gniel said.
“The new integrated VCE gives every student in Victoria more choice, a revised and enriched curriculum and delivers the academic and industry-specific skills they need for post-school education and work.”
VTAC, which calculates the ATAR, said each tertiary institution has autonomy over course selection requirement.
“VTAC applicants are currently considered on a range of factors in addition to or instead of the ATAR, including portfolios, discipline-specific tests, auditions, interviews, and access or equity schemes,” the spokesperson said.
The centre would continue to provide additional admissions tools to help students access the best courses for their goals and ensure Victorian tertiary institutions have a comprehensive picture of those applying for their courses and their potential for success, the spokesperson said.
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