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Year 12 results day: does the ATAR actually matter that much?

How much emphasis should we place on ATAR scores? from www.shutterstock.com

Year 12 results day: does the ATAR actually matter that much?

This morning, thousands of young people will be glued to their mobile phones for good reason.

It’s the first day that Australian Tertiary Admissions Rankings (ATARs) are released to students.

It’s these results that put a full stop on 13 years of schooling and open a new chapter.

And it’s also the day that media outlets across the country crunch the numbers to parade out the big winners – the handful of young people who obtain perfect scores of 99.95.

Over the coming days, we will hear how important the ATAR is for determining “the rest of your life”.

We will see the school league tables of winners and losers: the usual cast of schools in the usual handful of locations across the country that take top honours.

What we will not hear about is how a quarter of young people are not completing year 12 or its equivalent. Or about the schools that help disadvantaged children improve their ATARs, but do not make the top grades.

In part, this is because high-performing students from disadvantaged areas often drift toward higher-performing schools. The schools serving the most marginalised populations are tasked with providing the most support for those for whom university pathways are not the priority.

There are some success stories, but these are the exceptions to the norm in mainstream media. If only other disadvantaged schools would just pay attention to what these success stories do with their students!

What we won’t hear about is the crippling anxiety and other mental health issues that many students face in completing year 12.

A recent report shows that over one-third of young people aged between 15 and 19 are “highly stressed” about school. Over half of the 19,000 surveyed felt that academic barriers would impact on their further study and work goals.

Year 12 is often positioned as the defining moment, and many students falsely believe that exam failure means absolute disaster for their future.

So does the ATAR actually matter that much?

Well that depends on who you are asking, and what you think matters.

For university placements, the ATAR is being used less and less as the sole measure that universities employ in selecting students.

There is an overwhelming focus on those courses that are “easy” or “hard” to get into, with little regard for what students will do post-study. Within this, the ATAR is becoming less effective as a predictor of future success.

There is strong evidence to suggest that even those who do well in education are having a harder time of navigating their post-school lives.

Those who complete year 12 still tend to enjoy better job and life conditions than those who don’t.

However, other measures of disadvantage around socio-economic status, language background, Indigenous status and gender tend to act as stronger predictors of poor outcomes.

Far from meritocratic, poor ATARs tend to accumulate around particular postcodes where educational disadvantage is concentrated.

In a market where schools in wealthy suburbs — whether public or private — post billboards around their suburb reporting on student ATARs and university offers for their year 12 cohorts, is it surprising that students are overwhelmingly oriented toward university pathways over TAFE?

Is it surprising that students feel that their schools are being run as businesses with a focus on improving numbers, publicity and being competitive in the education marketplace?

The focus on ATARs in the mainstream media unfairly conflates school leaving with university offers.

In a country where only half of young people finishing school take up university places, and almost a quarter of those students do not finish their bachelor degrees, this focus provides a false representation of where young people go after school.

It also masks a much deeper story about who is missing out on educational and work opportunities.

Today is the day that we celebrate those at the top of the curve. However, today should be the day that we interrogate the value of the ATAR and of targets for improving the proportion of young people attaining year 12 or equivalent.

We must question the premium on year 12 as the measure for a successful transition. As a country, it is time we had a serious discussion about the emphasis we place on year 12.