Many students spend their final years of school working toward the highest Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) they can get. But after many years of concerns, there is a renewed debate about whether we should scrap this university entrance ranking altogether.
Last month, a high-profile group of Victorian educational leaders called for education authorities to replace the ATAR with a “learner profile”. Such an approach – also called “narrative evaluation” by researchers – provides information about a student’s interests, values and skills not necessarily captured in the ATAR. This might include things such as communication, caring and creativity.
Indeed, a common criticism of the ATAR is that it does not tell universities enough about potential students and does not do enough to ensure diversity. Our research suggests students also see it as unfair.
But despite these concerns, we need to be careful about what we replace the ATAR with, or whether we should replace it at all.
What is the ATAR?
The ATAR gives students a rank between zero and 99.95. It is a “percentile rank” – an estimate of the percentage of the population a student outperformed.
The method of calculating the ATAR varies across states and territories. Generally speaking, it involves complex scaling and moderation processes that consider how competitive a subject is, with each student being academically compared to the other students in the same year level doing the same subject.
Both school evaluation marks and final external exam marks are considered in the calculation process. The higher your school’s average, the more favourable the process will be to your school.
This is why students are “dragged up” by high achievers in their school – they are pushing up the mean, thereby pushing up everyone’s marks in that school. In other words, your school peers’ achievement can greatly affect your school evaluation mark, which will be considered in your ATAR.
ATAR is still the most common way to go to uni
Introduced in 2009, the ATAR was designed to unify the university entrance system in Australia. Before this, each state and territory had its own system.
One criticism of the ATAR is that it is too “blunt” and too stressful for students, with all their school efforts hanging on a number. Critics have also called for “non-ATAR-based pathways” to make access to university more equitable.
Some universities and degree programs don’t just rely on ATARs. They also use entry tests, interviews, or other requirements such as portfolios. Figures also suggest more students are rejecting the ATAR. For example, in 2021, about 10% of Victorian students completed the Victorian Certificate of Education without getting an ATAR.
Nevertheless, the ATAR remains the dominant form of Australian university admissions.
As part of a wider 2021 study into how Australian private schools provide fair and inclusive education, we conducted focus groups with 24 students from both private and government schools.
One issue we identified was students believe the ATAR is “unfair”. This is not necessarily because they think the evaluation process must be more holistic in nature, but because they believe private schools have an advantage. They note how these schools tend to do better in state league tables, naturally pulling up the marks of students who attend them.
As one government school student observed:
One of the biggest influences on your ATAR is your school average […] and private schools have higher grades because they’re more selective, so we need to really upbeat our game because they have a huge advantage on us.
Similarly, a private school student explained:
Paying so much money to attend such a good school, it’s kind of a waste of money and resources if you’re not utilising that, like, if you’re not taking advantage of your advantage and do the best you can to succeed. It’s reassuring that your peers are strong students.
Certainly, research shows socioeconomic background has a big impact on students’ academic performance. A 2015 Australian study also suggests private schooling can add up to eight points to a student’s ATAR.
What about narrative evaluation?
So-called “narrative evaluation” approaches seek to move the focus from a score to what a student has learned and engaged with.
It may come in the form of written text (or “mini essay”) about completed coursework and a student’s performance, supplementing or replacing other measures such as grades or pass/fail designations.
Internationally, different forms of narrative evaluation are used by some universities and schools. For example, Hampshire College in Massachusetts uses narrative evaluations instead of grades, to eliminate competition and enhance a “collaborative learning community”.
Other US universities such as MIT, Johns Hopkins and Brown University have been considering overhauling traditional grading to reduce stress in the first year of college and make evaluation fairer for students who didn’t come from prestigious high schools.
Narrative evaluations can be a problem, too
But narrative evaluation has also been criticised for making it difficult for students to get into graduate schools or secure scholarships. This is because grades are the “common currency” in most universities, and not having them could project an image of low standards to other institutions.
The University of California Santa Cruz, for example, abandoned the narrative evaluation system in 2001 because it “created a bad image”, among other reasons.
Research also shows US secondary students find narrative evaluations more stressful than letter grades. This is due to the intensity of the provided feedback (which could be seen as nitpicky), teacher subjectivity and need for revisions. Teachers also report this type of evaluation takes up a lot of resources and time.
What happens next?
Like any other evaluation system the ATAR has its flaws, which should be acknowledged and discussed. The fact that some students do not see it as fair is a significant issue, but a straight narrative evaluation system in its place may not be the answer.
This is not to say more personal evaluation components can’t be added. Medical schools, for example, have found interviews an effective and important way to evaluate students’ personal and social capacities for the profession.
As the ATAR debate no doubt continues, we might be critical of this “blunt” number, but need to be careful any changes are genuine improvements – for students, schools, universities and employers.