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Time to rethink ATAR?

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The ATAR is the culmination of 13 years or so of learning but as ideas about educating change and universities turn to other ways of admitting students, its relevance is being questioned.

While a high ATAR does indicate a better chance of completing tertiary studies, for ATARs lower than 80 the score provides next to no indication of success at university. The ATAR’s usefulness has further diminished as the number of higher education places has increased, widening the gates to entry.

The authors of the Mitchell report, Crunching the Number, on the issue say that education should develop the foundation skills and broader capabilities required to succeed in a changing world, support effective transitions from school to post-school life and enable more school leavers to participate in tertiary study or training.

Only one in four university admissions was based on the ATAR, the report found.

The ATAR simplifies a complex range of inputs, it can mask where students have excelled or performed poorly, and reduces the rich skills, knowledge and capabilities students develop over 13 years of schooling to one number, the report states.

The ranking of all final year school students on a single scale from 0 to 99.95 is unique to Australia and causes distortions, universities are cornered into playing a shell game with ATARs, setting entrance requirements for courses high so as not to dilute their prestige while admitting students through late and early round offers and other entrance criteria. Students shy from tougher subjects attempting to score well in the test.

The system is clearly turning into a case of chase the ATAR rather than seek the best outcomes for students and their futures.

Many comparable countries are tempering reliance on a single figure, in Singapore students are evaluated based on individual grades obtained in four content-based subjects, as well as a general critical thinking subject, and an extended group learning project. Some faculties have additional requirements such as interviews or aptitude tests.

An increasing number of universities in the UK have shunned the A levels and set their own entrance exams while US Universities require students to provide their achievement scores on a standardised aptitude test, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) which usually combines with essays on personal achievements.

Australian universities are increasingly turning to aptitude tests to assess applicants to their most prestigious courses.

The Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admissions Test (or UMAT) is used to select students for medicine, dentistry and health sciences at 13 Australian universities. It assesses general attributes and abilities, including the acquisition of skills in critical thinking and problem solving, understanding people and abstract non-verbal reasoning. Participating universities take the results of this test into account alongside a student’s ATAR.

The Law Admissions Test (LAT) was recently introduced for law studies at the University of New South Wales, students’ LAT score is added to the ATAR as ‘additional points’ (UNSW Law, 2017). The LAT is designed to assess ‘aptitudes and skills that are critical to success in the law program, including critical thinking and analysis, and organising and expressing ideas in a clear and fluid way’.

Computer-based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics (CASPer) was implemented for admission to initial teacher education courses in Victoria. The CASPer tests applicants’ personal and professional attributes, such as motivation to teach, resilience and organisation and planning skills.

Most universities offer Special Entry Access Schemes or Education Access Schemes which enable students experiencing disadvantage to add bonus points to their ATAR.

Some schemes enable school principals to make special recommendations for students they believe are capable of performing well at university despite underperforming in the ATAR, others offer direct entry to disadvantaged students before the main round of admissions and therefore bypass the use of ATAR.

Another growing pathway to admission is through shorter courses or qualifications designed to prepare students for bachelor level study. They aim to provide more supportive environments for school leavers, bridging the gap between school and more independent university study. These courses provide entry into the second year of a bachelor degree, or the results can be taken into account in a separate application process.

Selection methods such as interviews, portfolios, auditions and admission essays enable universities to get a more complete picture of student aptitudes not captured by a tertiary ranking, as well as gathering the more contextual factors necessary to determine how well a student is suited to a particular field of study.

Some universities use interviews for highly selective courses, while portfolios are more commonly used for studies in creative areas.

There are also equity considerations with these methods. While they provide a fuller picture of students who may have been disadvantaged by selection processes relying on school results, it is difficult to guarantee transparency.

While the authors aren’t advocating a scrapping of ATAR they feel some changes should be considered.

Any rethink of the system should include matching a student’s abilities, as well as his or her interests and aptitudes to a course of study or career pathway and ensuring students’ decisions are not unduly distorted by the perceived prestige of one institution over another. 

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