A main contributor to the confusion over how to support people transitioning into tertiary or higher education (HE) seems to be the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).
Many of us remember bunkering down to study in the final years of high school. We likely remember our school drilling the importance of the ATAR for our futures, and the pressure and stress that came with it.
So how useful is the ATAR, especially during this coronavirus pandemic? And is a low score really that disadvantageous?
The purpose of the score
The ATAR is a ranking of your academic results compared with other Australian students.
For example, a score of 70 (or if you can even remember yours anymore) is an estimate that you performed better than 70 percent of students.
Dr. Piper Rodd, from Deakin University’s School of Education, explains that universities use the ATAR to compare and accept students for courses where there may be finite places.
“It’s a limited tool that tests your capacity to do well under exam conditions,” Dr. Rodd says, “not necessarily an indication of a student’s capacity to do well at university.”
The usefulness of the ATAR is declining with more places at university and online study, and an increase of 46 percent of students commencing HE since 2007.
Taking on a life of its own, the ATAR seems glorified by students, teachers and parents as the goal and key to measuring success.
Students may mistakenly confuse it for their whole worth, especially at such a crucial stage in their lives and development.
Dr. Rodd says this causes “a lot of pressure for students.”
“Achieving the ATAR score they’ve been seeking is an accomplishment they can be proud of, but it’s not looking at the whole range of achievement, capacities and skills they learn in 13 years of schooling.”
Finishing school should be a celebration of the value and journey of education (and moving onto the next stage, whatever that may be).
ATARs cannot tell us everything about a young person and their abilities.
Transitioning into university
Worryingly, ATARs may encourage students to choose subjects simply to boost their score.
“Getting a high ATAR can often channel students into certain courses that they might not be ideally suited for,” Dr. Rodd adds.
Rather than ‘wasting’ their score or following interests and talent, Dr. Rodd explains that “They might choose the course they think their ATAR score equates to, like law or medicine.”
With only 66 per cent of university students completing their degrees after six years, the drop out and course-switching can indicate that they’re studying courses they’re not interested in or passionate about.
Dr. Rodd says that many school-leavers also struggle with the transition into university and university expectations, so again the ATAR isn’t the best indicator.
The ATAR culture teaches students to value learning that is tested only. “They ask me why they should read that article or book if they’re not going to be examined on it.”
This stressful exam-based culture conditions the joy out of learning and knowledge, and reduces students’ capacity to think for themselves.
It can be scary when you’re 18 and your future seems dependent on a numerical value, but you don’t yet know where you want to end up just yet.
But life goes on if it’s a low score, perhaps more colourfully. Taking a different pathway than the narrow ATAR-based entry into HE, we can find opportunities we’d never have otherwise discovered.
Studying in this time of uncertainty
Students have been adapting to changes amidst the coronavirus pandemic, notably studying from home.
This has meant less access to valuable, physical classroom resources that aid best scores.
Also, despite Year 12 studies going ahead this year, they may not sit the traditional end-of-year exams. Yet, “ATAR will still be used,” Dr. Rodd explains.
The ATAR is causing even more stress and uncertainty.
Acknowledgements and adjustments may be made when calculating scores this year, Dr. Rodd says, “taking into account personal factors that have impacted students.
“The decision to formally acknowledge the myriad structural and systemic factors that influence students’ academic achievement is welcome.
“However, such a recognition needs to go further, acknowledging the limitations and inequalities inherent in the ATAR score and school system.”
What better time to ditch the outdated ATAR than now in our new world of learning, while an already limited system is further disrupted.
Despite it all, during this uncertain time students can be reminded that there remain many excellent pathways to follow when they do finish, regardless of any number they may or may not have.
The beauty of alternate pathways
Getting into your desired course with an ATAR score is the quickest way and most well-known, but certainly isn’t the only way, or necessarily the best.
Despite pressure from schools, Dr. Rodd says, “There are many options and alternate pathways for students to pursue. And education is a very holistic journey.”
More and more students are using alternate pathways to gain entry into HE, or returning to study after taking a break.
In 2016, only a quarter of domestic undergraduate students had an ATAR-based entry. Now we’re seeing even less use of ATARs.
“People who don’t come directly from school and have different life experiences, may have worked for a few years or come to university through alternate pathways often really value the experience.
“They’re more likely to throw themselves into all the opportunities universities offer.”
Students of various ages and backgrounds are coming to HE through various pathways. So no matter your ATAR or your age, the options can be more beneficial than using an ATAR.
Some options include starting a similar course or at a different university or campus with the intent to transfer, a lower-level qualification such as TAFE or an associate degree, or taking a break from study entirely.
Dr. Rodd says that TAFE courses offer a hands-on approach which is beneficial as part of the journey to university, or may be better suited for some students entirely.
They can also award credit towards university study.
“Students who come from alternate pathways often do very well, because they’ve had different experiences.”
And it’s never too late to study.
Experience life before returning to study
Gap years may not have the best reputation, but they’re gaining popularity. And they’re actually not about aimless relaxation or holidaying.
“The last few years of high school are exhausting for a lot of students and they deserve to have a break,” Dr. Rodd says.
Time away from study can be a proactive and fulfilling journey of growth personally and professionally, whether it’s a gap year or several years (or even decades) before returning to study.
Volunteering, a program abroad, or travelling enriches our lives and rewards us with knowledge about other cultures. This new perspective increases our own self-awareness.
We can develop independence and maturity while out of our comfort zone, taking charge of our experiences and own time away.
“ATAR-based entry students often aren’t prepared to be independent learners, which is what universities require. It’s a steep learning curve.”
Time off provides a great opportunity to build skills and work ethic, through employment or newfound hobbies.
Employers and, increasingly, universities are recognising these invaluable experiences that can’t be measured in a score.
“All the valuable skills like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, time management and teamwork are crucial for successful outcomes at university.
“Being able to harness a range of professional, academic and personal experiences demonstrates different skills that different employers want.”
This time can be spent doing activities that uncover our ambitions and hidden talents, away from normal school routines.
Reflecting on what we enjoy and want means less time and money spent studying something simply because we thought we ‘should’.
We can refresh, recollect our creativity, refocus and renew our sense of purpose.
We can move forward as confident, motivated and well-rounded people, taking no opportunities for granted.
Research shows that older university students are the most committed.
Dr. Rodd suggests that they know what they want, they value all experiences, are less likely to drop out, and can bring their wealth of knowledge with a keenness often unmatched by school-leavers.
So perhaps we should forget the numbers. And when we’re allowed to roam the streets freely again post-COVID-19, let’s all make the most of it and live a little first.