Is Australia’s final school assessment and tertiary admissions system behind the times? Is its value being overemphasised and is it, in some cases, compromising quality teaching and learning? In short, is it time for a change?

New analysis from the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University is prompting governments and educators to look at how young people are moving from school to further study and careers, and consider if the ATAR’s number is up.

The paper Crunching the number: exploring the use and usefulness of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) reports that just one in four students are entering university undergraduate courses based on their ATAR, suggesting a huge contrast to the importance placed on ATAR in schools.

“The question parents, students and teachers should be asking today is, if the ATAR doesn’t matter for three quarters of undergraduate admissions, why is it treated as the most important outcome of 13 years of schooling?” Mitchell Institute Director, Megan O’Connell says in a statement.

Kim Paino, general manager of Marketing and Engagement from the Universities Admissions Centre however, fears the public may be misled by these figures.

“That’s actually quite misleading. The figures that were published around that report, they were taking into account all admissions.

“So, if you’re not coming straight from school, a university’s not looking at your ATAR at all,” she explains.

“So when you actually looked at Year 12 students ... 79 per cent of Year 12 students were admitted on the basis of [their] ATAR.

“That’s very different to 25 [per cent], because it’s Year 12 students, because that’s who we’re talking about when we talk about ATAR, we’re not talking about anybody else.”

If the majority of Year 12 students are still relying on their ATAR as a means of entry into university, Jan Owen, CEO of Foundation for Young Australians believes this could be about to change.

“There are a growing number of students that are actually making their own way into universities and other educational institutions without an ATAR,” Owen says.

“In fact, schools are setting up direct relationships with universities around how people will be assessed to get into university; I think there’s about 50 in Victoria at last count.

“So, the ATAR has been losing ground as the measure for both the universities themselves, and also for schools.

“And I think particularly for students, there’s a globally growing movement around understanding that an ATAR or a score at a point in time, does not actually really describe all of the skills and capabilities of young people.

“That whole ‘aceing the test’ idea, that just doesn’t hold anymore, it is not actually what is going to get you into successful pathways into study or further beyond that into work.

“So, I think [the ATAR] has come under fire for a whole lot of reasons and that we have had a fairly rigid assessment model in this country.”

Paino admits the ATAR is not the ‘be-all’ and ‘end-all’, and some courses require additional entry criteria such as interviews, performances and folios.

“Universities have been looking at a more complete picture of students for some time. It’s not new.

“I guess in the last few years they’ve probably been looking at that more, so broadening their admissions criteria, even for Year 12 students, but that’s a good thing.

“That’s looking at the more com plete picture of what a student has to offer.”

So if the emphasis on ATAR is in decline, should we be using it at all? Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel has recently hit out at the ranking system, blaming it for steering students away from more difficult maths and science subjects.

“Rightly or wrongly, they absorb the message that the way to boost their ATAR is to drop down a level in mathematics,” he says in a report on inspiring Australia’s next generation.

The focus on ATAR needs to be not only on students getting into university but also on preparing to do well, he says.

The report found overall enrolments in maths is steady at 72 per cent, but the number of students choosing intermediate and advanced maths fell from 54 per cent to 36 per cent between 1992 and 2012.

“If students do not see the value in the knowledge and skills they will gain through these challenging subjects, or see a benefit or need in relation to their postschool plans, there is little incentive for students to engage with them,” the report states.

Paino argues however, that ATAR itself is not to blame.

“I think there is certainly a problem around perception, there’s nothing in the ATAR calculation itself that should make students do that.

“Because, the whole purpose of scaling and the way the ATAR’s calculated is to remove those sorts of differences between courses ... if there are these misconceptions about ‘if I do an easier level of maths then I can increase my ATAR,’ which actually isn’t borne out by the data, that is a myth,” she says.

“But it has traction in schools, we know that. “We go out and talk to schools and careers advisors all the time and we know that there are those sorts of views out there.”

At the end of the day, Paino says students should be choosing subjects that will set them up for success in their chosen university course, rather than choosing irrelevant subjects they feel might boost their chances of getting into the course in the first place.

“I think you’re just dumbing down your education in pursuit of a number, when it’s meant to be about more than that,” she says.

“And even if you are intent upon going to uni and therefore [your] ATAR is important to you, the ATAR is not the end goal itself...”

O’Connell says based on Mitchell Institute research, there is variation in which students are selecting easier or more difficult subjects, depending on which state or territory they live in.

“And that just really goes to show how complex the ATAR is. It seems to be this really clear ranking tool, [but] it’s not that clear what goes in underneath it.

“And you can’t blame all students for seeking to maximise what their score is, if that’s what they perceive as their one way into university is,” O’Connell says.

Paino says it’s unfortunate to see many universities have been reluctant to put pre-requisites in place for many courses.

“Students have been able to not choose the subjects that prepare them best, because they haven’t been forced to, and unfortunately I think human nature being what it is, if an easier path is open, some people will take that.

“I think universities who have reintroduced pre-requisites are doing a service to students. Basically they’re telling them what they need to do,” she says.

The Review Panel for the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools delivered a final report to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham in March.

The resulting report Through growth to achievement: Report of the review to achieve educational excellence in Australian Schools, explores the uses and limitations of ATAR as well.

The report, headed by David Gonski, has recommended setting up a national inquiry to review curriculum and assessment in Years 11 and 12.

Outlined under limitations of current assessment models, is mention of the ATAR’s limited use for students who do not study after Year 12.

“[ATAR results] provide limited help to employers assessing prospective candidates because they communicate little about the specific skills, potential or learning growth of a student.

“For example, they do not capture a student’s abilities in general capabilities, even though employers value these skills highly,” the report states.

Paino says she agrees with this notion, “100 per cent”.

“I think one of the biggest problems we have as a community with ATAR, is the fact that it’s used as a catch all for all students, as a measure of all students and everything that they’ve done.

“When really it’s a very specific tool, it works well as that tool, but it’s not meant to be anything more than what it purports to be, which is a tool for university entry.

“So it really shouldn’t have anything to say to employers or other people, about that student and what they’ve achieved.”

According to the Mitchell Institute, however, recent changes to the tertiary sector mean this tool may no longer be the best for the job.

“The ATAR is a useful, transparent tool for universities to compare students when deciding entry to high demand undergraduate courses but with more places now available across the board, the ATAR’s usefulness is declining overall,” a statement from the institute says.

“What has changed is that universities in the last few years have opened up dramatically, with the introduction of the demand-driven system ... there have been a lot more places and so that ranking of students and that narrow gateway into university really isn’t there anymore,” Sarah Pilcher, author of Crunching the number: exploring the use and usefulness of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) explains.

O’Connell says policymakers should think about how to support successful transitions from school that prioritise individual strengths, capabilities, interests and career opportunities over ‘spending’ of an ATAR.

“We have great teachers trying groundbreaking methods to engage students and give them the tools to reach their very best but they sometimes face resistance if approaches don’t deliver high ATARs.

“It is time to look across our education system, decide what we want it to deliver for young people, for communities and for our future economy, then consider what role, if any, the ATAR should play.” Owen agrees.

“...let’s really create a much more diverse understanding about the fact that we are now measuring skills and capabilities and not pure content areas, which is kind of the old industrial model of education and learning,” she says.

“We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be any assessment, because, of course, it is critical that people can assess their progress... That is actually incredibly important data for teachers, so that they can do what Gonski 2.0 is suggesting, which is actually create tailored individual learning pathways for students. And certainly where schools have done that they’ve got much better results.”

Owen offers the example of Templestowe College, a forwardthinking school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

“Schools like Templestowe which have had a strong relationship with Swinburne [University] for a long time, have worked out with Swinburne, ‘what are the kind of performance measures that would be required for students to enter into a range of different courses?’.

“I mean, Templestowe is a good example, because almost every student there leaves with an enterprise, so they actually leave the school as entrepreneurs.

“Now in the past, that would not have been measured in a pure model or necessarily factored into a score, but of course there’s a lot of universities ... [that are] very interested in having students like that.”

Owen is urging the education community and general public to rethink everything we know about assessment.

“We need to rethink this from NAPLAN, all the way through to ATAR and all the way out the other side of that, because as we know ... after three years of being in a job, nobody ever asked what our results where at school, or at university, because nobody actually cares.

"People care what you can do and how you show up. They don’t care about the number that you got.

“So we put a huge amount of unnecessary pressure on students and families and also on the system, that we need to just rethink at this point in time.”