Why the obsession with ATARs?

The weeks leading up to Christmas are often referred to as the “silly season” and I suggest that it has to do with more than just shopping. If you have high-school aged children, or if you have anything to do with schools, you can’t have failed to notice that there has been a lot of publicity around the release of ATAR results in the past week or two. And it’s not just the newspapers getting into a lather about it. Many schools have used this opportunity to boast about how well their students have done (and, by association, how wonderful they must be).

If you don’t have kids and don’t work in schools you may be asking: why all the fuss? What’s the big deal with ATARs anyway? Let’s consider some facts (and permit me to share some opinions).

An Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is generated for all eligible graduating Year 12 students, by the relevant authority in each state. According to the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre (QTAC), “(an ATAR) is the standard measure of a student’s overall academic achievement in relation to other students”. Importantly, the rank is used to compare the achievements of students in different schools, even when they have studied different subjects. And, yes, it’s very complicated… but we have to trust that it is fair.

As the name suggests, ATARs are really designed for universities, who are looking to enrol students into courses which may have many more students seeking entry than they have places to offer. Universities (or the Tertiary Admissions Centres) compare the ATARs of all the students who have applied for a particular course and offer places to those with the highest ranks. Thus, the ATAR cut-off for a particular course is an indicator of supply and demand, rather than anything else. For example, in 2023 at the University of Queensland, the ATAR cut-off for Law was 97.50, while the cut-off for primary teaching was 75.00. This leads us to the first of many misunderstandings about ATARs.

It is completely wrong to suggest that a student who obtains a high ATAR ought to apply for courses that are likely to have high cut-offs, but that is what many are encouraged to do. ATAR cut-offs have unfortunately been conflated with the prestige of the degree, meaning that many celebrate entry to Medicine or Law more than they do entry to Nursing or Teaching. Why?

I suggest it is also wrong to consider the ATAR to be more than it actually is. It is a single number, used just once, at a particular point in time, for a specific purpose. An ATAR is not a comprehensive measure of school achievement, nor is it a predictor of future success. I would argue that it is simply the best tool we have (and it is a blunt instrument, which really ought to be supplemented by other information), to help universities to fill their quotas.

I believe we do students a mis-service when we (parents and schools) encourage them to allow us to share their ATARs for the benefit of making ourselves look and feel better about ourselves. So what if School A had more than 70% of its eligible students obtain ATARs greater than 90. What does that tell us, other than that these already-privileged students have benefited from a very good education? What ought we to think of School B down the road, where “only” 20% of the eligible students obtained ATARs greater than 90? Is School A really a better school (as they seem to want us to believe), or is there more going on?

I would like to see two (related) fundamental shifts in the way in which we think about what a good secondary education looks like, in the future. The first will require that ATARs be supplemented by much more comprehensive (and therefore, more meaningful) summaries of student achievement. The Learner Profiles which many schools and education systems are moving towards will certainly be better for students, parents and prospective employers, in this regard.

Secondly, I suggest that more schools need to acknowledge publicly that the most important outcomes of a good education cannot be reduced to a single number. What can an ATAR tell me about a young person’s character? What can an ATAR tell me about their leadership potential or their preparedness to serve others? What can an ATAR tell me about a young person’s tolerance of difference, or resilience, or capacity to overcome disadvantage?

I love the story told by Adam Grant (in Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, 2023), about José Hernandez. Since he was a boy, José dreamed of becoming an astronaut. This is a very difficult goal for anyone to achieve, let alone the son of undocumented Mexican migrants who had only a third-grade education. However, José worked hard, got through high school and completed a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. He first applied to NASA at the age of 27 … and was rejected. José kept going though, adding new skills and experiences to his resumé as he went (including learning to fly, to scuba dive and to speak Russian). Eventually, when José was 36, he made the final selection round for NASA recruitment, but again failed to gain entry to the astronaut program. However, he was offered a position as an engineer in the space program, which he accepted. Six years later, after 15 years of applying, José was finally selected to train as an astronaut. He achieved his goal in August 2009, at the age of 47, when he launched into space aboard the space shuttle (ISS Assembly Flight 17A).

What can we learn from the story of José Hernadez, and how does it apply to our students, whatever their ATAR? Adam Grant puts it this way –                                                                                                     

It’s a mistake to judge people solely by the heights they’ve reached … When we confuse past performance with future potential, we miss out on people whose achievements have involved overcoming major obstacles. We need to consider how steep their slope was, how far they’ve climbed, and how they’ve grown along the way.

Nigel Grant
Nigel Grant

Nigel is the primary consultant at Character Matters