The devil in the ATAR

And does the Bible have any wisdom for its victims?

Australian high school students are facing their final hurdle this week, as ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) results are released across the country.

According to the Australian University Admissions Centre, it is “a number between 0.00 and 99.95 that indicates a student’s position relative to all the students in their age group (that is, all 16- to 20-year-olds in NSW).” In other words, it’s a number that ranks all students (against all other students) in their age group (including those who didn’t actually do Year 12).

At best, a good ATAR is a perfect-shaped key that opens the door to the university course a student wants to enrol in. And, if all goes to plan, that study will in turn equip them for the job they would love, and deliver future career success and financial security.

But there’s a growing chorus of concern about how Australia’s education system assesses and ranks young people, with some saying it no longer builds their futures and may even be an obstacle to success.

So Eternity takes a look the current debate and then sees what wisdom the Bible can offer for a generation that has been battered and bruised by the devilish ATAR?

Is the ATAR past its use-by date?

In October this year The Australian Learning Lecture (ALL) released a Position Paper entitled Beyond ATAR: a proposal for change – “a Position Paper on transforming the transition from school to higher education, life and work”.

The report is described as “an extended collaboration with leading educators, academics and policy experts following ALL’s second lecture where global education leader, Charles Fadel, challenged Australian educators to improve the transition from school to work and study.”

“The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) was established to provide a consistent way for university selectors to make distinctions amongst the many highly academically able school leavers. It’s a system that has worked well for universities, with the examination and moderation costs carried by schools and governments,” the report asserted.

But, it went on, “as each year passes” and the Australian education landscape changes, “the ATAR becomes less fit for purpose”.

Why this declining return from the ATAR?

“Australia is in a transition. We have moved beyond the era of universal primary education to near universal secondary education. An era of universal tertiary education is emerging, whereby young people will need to engage in post-school education and learn and relearn throughout their lives. Our education system must be re-configured to support this.”

Our national statistics tell the same story:  just over half Australians aged 25 to 34 years old hold a tertiary qualification – that’s a rise of 9 per cent over the past decade. Eighty-five per cent of working-age Australians who hold an undergraduate degree were employed, along with 86 per cent of those who hold a master’s degree, and 89 per cent of those with a doctorate. (Source: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance Report 2019).

So if young people these days need a degree (or several degrees) to compete in the job market, and if having a degree makes them more employable, is the dreaded ATAR a necessary evil?

The experts say no.

Five myths about the ATAR (and the game-changing reality)

Myth 1: All countries rank their students in some way or another at the end of school

Reality: Australia is alone in ranking students. While other countries give scores, they do not rank their students in order.

“A range of approaches are used internationally,” explain the authors of Beyond ATAR.

“In Singapore, students are graded on individual subjects, critical thinking and a group project. The UK uses A levels with early offers based on predicted grades. In the US, Scholarship Assessment Tests are taken on a variety of domains including writing, maths and critical thinking.”

Myth 2 : You can’t get into university without an ATAR

Reality: The use of an ATAR for enrolment in university has declined to only one in four.

Enrolments that don’t use an ATAR include: students who apply for uni a year or more after they have finished high school (so other factors are taken into account, such as other post-school study, secondary studies results – that is, not rank – and employment experience; courses that require a portfolio application, interview or other assessment (see Myth 3) instead of an ATAR; and people who apply for a course using the marks they achieved in another completed university degree.

Myth 3 : Universities need ATARs to assess students equally using the same criteria

Reality: Universities have autonomy in what method they use to accept students, as long as it’s a clear, fair and equitable system for allocating course places.

And there’s already a range of methods in use including, according to Beyond ATAR, “direct entry arrangements for candidates with wider educational experience; standardised entrance tests for medicine and teaching; portfolios and special entry provisions for arts and creative areas, and interviews for high demand courses.”

To name just a few: Macquarie University has a ‘Leaders and achievers early entry scheme‘;  The University of Western Sydney has a Rural Entry Admission Scheme (REAS) for students wanting to study medicine; and Charles Sturt University offers a range of pathways offered on a webpage that declares, “We know not everyone has the same opportunities in high school.

Myth 4: Even if you don’t end up using your ATAR, it’s a good indicator of how smart you are

Reality: The ATAR is limited in the kind of information it can provide about a student, which is why most universities are hesitant to rely on it alone when assessing potential students.

In particular, the tertiary admission rank does little to reflect the difficulty of courses studied or a student’s excellent performance in some subjects but not others.

Beyond the ATAR’s authors note: “The reliance on ATAR fails to allow for recognition of students with a ‘jagged’ profile who excel in certain areas while performing adequately in others. The ATAR puts emphasis on achieving a high average in all subjects, limiting appreciation of different kinds of excellence and different rates of progress across varied domains, thus removing incentives to optimise individual talents and pursuits and artificially narrowing pathways for students.

“A single number is a thin representation of the outcome of 13 years of schooling. A single number does not capture the attainments and qualities of any student, and is not a reliable predictor of future academic success for students with scores below 70, or success in life.”

Myth 5: It doesn’t hurt to strive for a good ATAR and see how you go

Reality: For some students this might be true, but for others, chasing a good ATAR may cause them to narrow their interests, and sacrifice learning opportunities and engagement to focus on memorising and recalling content.

In addition, it can affect the way teachers teach subjects and which skills they encourage students to develop.

And all of this can reduce a student’s enjoyment of study and deplete their sense of value and agency, leading to poor mental health.

Beyond ATAR‘s authors describe it like this: “… Too many students and schools consider the attainment of a ‘good ATAR’ to be the dominant goal of this phase of education, with the importance of a good score overshadowing everything else. Young people may abandon their real interests, push aside extra-curricular activities and part-time employment to focus on achieving a score. Mental health problems are on the rise as young people feel pressured to achieve.

“ATAR can distort student choice of subjects, and later courses… It is not enough to have a Year 12 certificate, and a ranking does not provide [universities with] unique insights into a student’s strengths and passions. A new approach is needed that encourages and reflects the breadth and diversity of individual student achievement and enables a smoother transition to tertiary education.”

Earlier this year, Eternity reported on both Mission Australia and ReachOut research which detailed the devastating effect study stress was wreaking on Australian young people. We also asked three Christian university students who are two years past achieving their ATAR to reflect on that time of stress with the benefit of what they know now. Both are important contributions to a conversation about the ATAR.

What does the Bible have to say about the ATAR?

First, a disclaimer: the acronym ATAR doesn’t appear in the Bible. But of course there’s plenty of wisdom in Christianity’s holy text that’s relevant to students who are facing the complex emotions and outcomes of being number-ranked against others.

Here’s a small peek at the Bible’s wisdom:

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1.27 (NIV)

“Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.” – Proverbs 3.6 (NLT)

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” – Philippians 1:6 (NLT)

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:34

“So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” – Hebrews 13:6 (NIV)

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last -and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” – John 15:15-16 (NIV)

“Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” – Luke 12:7 (ESV)

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” – Matthew 10:29-31 (NIV)