Beyond ATAR: a proposal for change

By Megan O’Connell, Sandra Milligan & Tom Bentley

The narrow measure of success

Current senior secondary curriculum assessment and certification systems in Australia do not support the recording of a broad range of capabilities such as communication, collaboration and creativity.

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. The costs of selection by ATAR are not high for universities, as the examination and moderation costs are borne by schools and governments. However, as each year passes, the ATAR becomes less fit for purpose.

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.

Deep changes in our community, the economy and work futures mean that all young people need to have different options to transition from compulsory education into adult life, further education and citizenship.

At present, many young people falter without a clear understanding of how to realise their strengths and achieve their aspirations. Instead, we need to foster every one of their talents. As long as the markers of success reinforce old standards, the degree of change will continue to be limited and efforts counterproductive.

Young People in Australia

  • One in five students fails to complete Year 12 nationwide. This figure varies substantially nationwide, with only one in two learners completing Year 12 in some communities.
  • One in four young people at age 24 are still not fully engaged in education or employment.
  • Nearly a third of secondary students are chronically absent from secondary school
  • For over half of young people the transition to full time work takes up to five years, with many young people working a variety of part time and casual jobs.

For many, the learning journey is unclear and complex, with gates and barriers that require navigation. Pathways are often marked by changes in direction, doubling back and rethinking. Some of these pathways are expensive, causing young people to narrow their choices.

Moving away from ATAR

Despite the ATAR declining in usage from around one in three to one in four enrolments in recent years, it remains the dominant narrative in education and community forums.

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.

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.

The value of a high school certificate has diminished in relative terms, as most students gain Year 12. It is not enough to have a Year 12 certificate, and a ranking does not provide unique insights into a student’s strengths and passions. A new approach to is needed that encourages and reflects the breadth and diversity of individual student achievement and enables a smoother transition to tertiary education.

The proposal forward

Proposal One: Distinctive phase for young people aged 15-19

The age 15-19 stage of education, from Year 10 to the first-year post school, should be re-cast as a specific developmental phase of education in which young people are supported to develop knowledge, skills and capabilities within various domains. All learners should be supported to navigate this phase and find a line of sight into work or further study that can lead them to a thriving adulthood and builds on their unique interests, capabilities and aspirations.

Proposal 2: A learner profile

A Learner Profile should be designed to provide a trusted, common way of representing the full range of attainments of young people during their transition years (within school and beyond) across a broad range of domains. The design of this profile should enable any jurisdiction to map and align it to its own representation of learner outcomes and capabilities, as reflected in its curriculum, reporting and certification systems.

Proposal 2: A learner profile

A Learner Profile should be designed to provide a trusted, common way of representing the full range of attainments of young people during their transition years (within school and beyond) across a broad range of domains. The design of this profile should enable any jurisdiction to map and align it to its own representation of learner outcomes and capabilities, as reflected in its curriculum, reporting and certification systems.

Conclusion

Globalisation and new technologies are already disrupting young people’s worlds. Young people need social, emotional and cognitive capabilities to succeed – to gain and retain human connections, to build resilience and learn to learn throughout their lives and across a range of domains. It is imperative that the education system adapts to these shifts, reflects the full range of young people’s achievements and supports young people to navigate a breadth of opportunities.

By re-casting senior secondary learning outcomes and supporting young people to understand and pursue their strengths, we will support better transition of young people into tertiary education and improve their chances of long-term success.

This is an extract from “Beyond ATAR: A proposal for change”

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