Educators the world over acknowledge this, but their attempts to better engage students and enhance the learning outcomes required now and for the future are strangled by a mandated curriculum that beats the love of learning out of students.
By the time students reach the end of Year 10, if they are even still remotely engaged, then we go in for the kill with the ATAR. It’s simple to me: it serves no purpose but has a highly detrimental effect on students, teachers and parents. It has to go!
The Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) specifically came about to provide a simplistic process to compare student ability/academic performance to assist Australian Universities in their admission process.
However, in doing so education became all about the exam. As such, hundreds of thousands of students have been forced to endure a system and curriculum that serves no other purpose than making university admission easier.
Speaking from a secondary context, from Year 7 upwards, if not earlier, the ATAR has been embedded into our culture as the measurement of academic success. Its presence in our system has resulted in a mandated curriculum that achieves very little.
Terry Hick, writing on Teachthought.com outlines the underlying assumptions of a curriculum;
1.That it’s learnable.
2. That it’s worthy of study.
3. That it’s comprised of the most important things a person should know.
4. That as a result of its study and mastery, human lives will improve as a result of ‘knowing all the things.’
5. That as a result of its study and mastery, culture and society will experience improvement, evolution, and growth.
6. That it works well with everything else.
In my opinion, the Curriculum associated with the ATAR does not meet these six assumptions. In rare circumstances, it rarely meets more than two at a time. What I do see however, it’s the detrimental effect it has on students, staff, parents and the wider community.
The ATAR is still, in the minds of many, the measure of academic ability and success. Whilst there is a great deal to discuss on this point alone, it is extremely disappointing to hear some parents state time and time again during a course selection process, despite their children’s wishes, “I won’t be paying for my child to do a General Pathway and/or VET.”
This however, is only one of the reasons students and their parents continue to pursue an ATAR pathway. Meanwhile schools, at the same time as they publicly denounce league tables, continue to promote them as such publicity may serve them well in the current competitive educational market.
More concerning is the pressure the ATAR pathway places on staff, students and parents.
Staff are less inclined to be innovative and engage students, feeling the pressure themselves to deliver a curriculum with a view to that ‘Final Exam.’
In doing so we contribute to the disengagement of students and destroy any passion for life learning. The process becomes a 'tick the box' scenario for all concerned, with little time given to the development of 21st Century Skills. We leave these students significantly underprepared for the real world.
The process rewards those that can memorise and regurgitate on cue and leaves students questioning their own abilities and self- worth.
I believe the ATAR places students under academic pressure that they will never experience the likes of again post-Year 12. Sure, many will go onto to do much more difficult study, but it will not involve studying up to six courses at once, many unrelated, requiring more than four hours additional work a day after six hours of school, coupled with the need to complete, on average, four assessments a week.
The pressure this places on students appears to be taking more and more of a toll on their own wellbeing and needless to say this then transfers to the family.
Let's draw from Michael Fullan, who quotes Brazilian Educator and Philosopher Paulo Freire on his belief that the fundamental purpose of education was “to act upon and transform the world (in order to) move towards ever new possibilities of a fuller and richer life individually and collectively. ”
The ATAR and its overarching effects, in my belief, undermines our ability as educators to equip students for a 21st Century world we are already twenty years into.
I believe Australian students are very disengaged from the current education system. Drawing on Fullan’s work over a number of years, never has a truer word been said when he acknowledges ”There is no reason for the majority of students to take conventional schooling seriously.”
The ATAR is a large part of this.
Whilst as educators we seem stuck in a system mandated by our various governing bodies, it appears the universities themselves have moved on. The 2018 Mitchell Report indicates approximately 60% of students currently in Australian universities entered without an ATAR score.
It appears the ATAR has well and truly outlived its expiry date.
In my current school, Mater Dei College in Western Australia, my principal Annette Morey and I are making a very conscious effort to change the perception of success being defined by the completion of an ATAR pathway or getting a good ATAR score.
We have expanded the pathways on offer to our students and continue to seek out partnerships with other organisations to enhance the engagement of students. We have worked to provide significantly more post-secondary schooling options, including university entry without an ATAR.
We have changed our advertising to remove any hierarchical structure to our pathways, and insist our students and their families choose the correct pathway in Year 11 and 12 as it relates to the individual student;
• Enhancement and protection of a student’s well-being.
• Skills and abilities.
• Interests, passions and dislikes.
• Future aspirations.
• Work ethic.
• Level of commitment required.
• Attainment of The Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE).
I acknowledge this is not the first article or opinion piece to suggest it is time to drop the ATAR. Similarly, I acknowledge the reasoning and points I have raised are very generic and broad. Given time and space, so much more could be written on this topic in much greater detail.
However, I wonder why we as educational researchers, leaders and educators, we have not managed to use our collective voice with much more better effect to call for change in this area sooner rather than later.