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ATARs – you may as well use postcodes for university admissions

For the next couple of months, young people across Australia will be sitting their final Year 12 examinations. For them, it’s the end of more than a decade of schooling looming large. Their soon to be…

The way we pick which students are let in to university is not a fair system. School image from www.shutterstock.com

For the next couple of months, young people across Australia will be sitting their final Year 12 examinations. For them, it’s the end of more than a decade of schooling looming large. Their soon to be determined Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking (ATAR) can mean everything – a badge to wear proudly or not, as the case may be.

For some universities the results become merely a way of sifting and sorting; who will get in, and who won’t.

But the system is breaking: increasingly schools are shaping their teaching towards maximising students’ score. And governments and universities alike have become overly focused on the ATAR as a measure of student quality - even though it’s more likely to measure the relative wealth of schools, more than a student’s abilities.

In fact, using a students' postcode might work just as well.

The ATAR is limited as a sifter and sorter. We need to focus on the potential and calibre of students that universities graduate, not predetermine potential based on skewed “evidence” that denies some the right to enrol.

Curriculum shape shifters

According to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), there is a growing problem in the way some schools are teaching to the ATAR. This means students end up being short-changed on the range and depth of studies in year 12.

A Victorian departmental discussion paper this year even said that:

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…the consequence of this is that individual students then attempt to maximise their 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.

This not only makes the ATAR a problematic measure of a students' potential, but it also undermines a school’s ability to prepare students to be successful at university.

Limited wealth and a blunt instrument

There has been a vigorous debate earlier this year about whether ATARs should be capped, creating a minimum entry for certain universities and courses.

The argument for claims that letting too many students with low ATARs in to Australian universities will “dumb down” the quality of education.

But often in these debates, we forget what the ATAR actually measures. It is not a score, it is a ranking. It is not an absolute, nor is it a measure of the potential capability and quality a student can achieve with effective teaching and support during their university studies.

It’s an imperfect control measure and certainly not a measure of someone’s potential.

Compounding this is the fact that ATAR is tightly correlated to social class and a school system that creates uneven outcomes directly related to wealth.

Students who live in low socio-economic status (SES) areas are pretty much destined to attend schools where subject choice and available resources are often significantly lower than those at higher SES schools. There are few role models to raise students’ aspirations. If students do complete year 12, it is likely to be with significantly lower ATARs that restrict the courses and institutions into which they can enrol.

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.

What’s happening is that the schools used by children from poorer backgrounds are becoming more segregated in the sense that the mix of children that they attend school with involve multiple disadvantage. Whereas the schools used by wealthier, more educated parents are becoming more socially selective and more powerful in terms of the resources that they can give to the schooling process.

As a recent OECD report puts it:

…the reality is hard to face: in most OECD countries, students’ attainment is typically lower in schools where most of the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The reasons for this phenomenon are multiple but the primary ones are: students’ socio-economic background has a strong impact on their performance; and many disadvantaged schools are unable to counteract its negative impact, and may indeed accentuate it.

To apply a “one-size fits all” ATAR is to adopt a deficit thinking for university admissions. We effectively disenfranchise students for not achieving an ATAR above the cut-off, despite the fact that their socio-economic circumstances mean they cannot compete fairly.

Unfair competition

That makes the earlier moves to require minimum ATARs all the more disconnected with this reality.

Is the University of New South Wales, for example, saying they can only take students with an ATAR above 80, because they don’t have the capacity to bring a diverse cross-section of students to a reasonable graduate standard after three or four years of study?

Or are they really saying students with ATARs at this level are incapable of ever achieving graduate standard, or are not worth the effort?

Comments by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (professional services) at Murdoch University indicated that his university too would apply a blanket minimum ATAR of 70 in order to “reposition the university in the quality end of the market.”

This kind of “input model” of student selection effectively exempts these universities from having to address their own quality issues, effective teaching or student support.

But there are alternatives. Some universities are now looking to more creative and sophisticated ways of assessing the potential of people to succeed. Some courses require additional information such as an interview and/or portfolio, to ensure fairer, more accurate student selection.

Fortunately, many tertiary providers are considering more creative and sophisticated ways of assessing students' potential. Courses like Medicine, Teaching and Fine Arts recognise this and require information additional to ATARs; including interviews and portfolios to ensure fairer, more appropriate student selection.

Other programs are helping high school students become “university ready”, including AVID along with Early University High School and dual credit programs. These partnerships with schools help share the responsibility for preparing lifelong learners and attract a broader cross-section of students to university.

Full potential

The thing to remember here is that equity and quality are not mutually exclusive. As the OECD noted:

The highest performing education systems are those that combine equity with quality. They give all children opportunities for a good quality education.

The sector must embrace the potential of students whose relatively low ATAR may actually reflect the accident of their social background or where they went to school, rather than their capabilities and potential.

We have made significant progress to becoming a more inclusive, socially just and knowledge-rich economy. But we need to continue and allow every child the choice of going to university, rather than that choice being determined because of their postcode.