Call for rethink on Australian university admissions

Fixation with students’ scores on national ATAR scale constrains teaching innovation in schools, says report

March 20, 2018
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More students than ever are entering Australia’s universities, but fewer than ever are using the mechanism designed specifically to facilitate admission.

A new report calls for a rethink of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, a unique league table that rates students’ suitability for university on a single national scale.

The report says that barely a quarter of students use the ATAR, which was introduced in 2009-10, for university entry. Just 26 per cent gained admission through the measure in 2016, down from 31 per cent in 2014, according to the latest available statistics.

Most commencing students enter using post-school or professional qualifications, “mature-age” provisions or special arrangements targeted at disadvantaged groups or particular disciplines.

Despite this, public discourse reinforces the message that “the ATAR is everything”, the report says. This encourages a teach-to-the-test mentality and discourages the “dynamic learning experiences” – such as project-based learning and real-life lessons – that cultivate broader skills such as creativity, resilience and collaboration.

It also produces perverse outcomes that undermine the ATAR’s purpose. There is evidence of Australian high school students switching to lower-level maths courses, or ditching the subject altogether, to boost their chances of achieving high ATAR scores.

This generates problems down the track, with new science, technology and engineering undergraduates lacking basic assumed knowledge such as calculus.

The ATAR also stresses students by inflating the importance of final school exams, the report says. And it skews their career choices, with school graduates reluctant to squander high ATAR scores on courses that require lower entry marks – consequently steering them away from occupations that might suit them personally.

The report, by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, lists other limitations of the mechanism. It says that the ATAR overlooks students’ broader accomplishments and strengths in particular subjects, and can rule them out because of tiny score differentials that might not be statistically significant.

Critics also say that the ATAR “merely reflects broader imbalances in educational opportunity” and argue that its use puts low socio-economic status students at a disadvantage. Meanwhile its chief virtue, transparency, has been undermined by universities that boosted their prestige by pretending not to admit low-ATAR students.

Despite the measure’s failings, the report stops short of calling for the ATAR to be scrapped. “There’s no easy solution to this,” said Megan O’Connell, director of the Mitchell Institute.

“We need to start a conversation with universities, school sectors and policymakers to come up with a better option – a modification or replacement that would be credible and easy enough to use, and would reflect a broader sense of student learning.”

Ms O’Connell said that reforming senior secondary education had proven “near impossible because teachers, students and parents are all focused on that final number”. Although the report does not prescribe an alternative measure, it does list some suggestions.

They include an “opt-in ATAR”, broader statements of achievement and measures based on individual subjects that relate directly to students’ tertiary aspirations.

The report says that mechanisms such as the ATAR are most applicable in systems of limited supply. “Before the introduction of the demand-driven system in higher education, selection was a tight bottleneck that required a sorting mechanism.”

The demand-driven system “widened the gates”, it says, with universities embracing students from more diverse pathways. It adds that the government’s recent move to cap funds for teaching at last year’s levels, in effect ending the demand-driven system, risks reasserting the primacy of the ATAR.

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