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Madonna King: ATAR is becoming increasingly useless, despite student sacrifices

In Queensland today, one graduating year 12 student will wake up to a big number painted on their bedroom ceiling – 99+.

It was painted two years ago as a permanent reminder at the start of each day of the ATAR rank she wanted, above anything else.

Above the sport she gave up. The friends she let go. The long, languid chats with family after dinner. The chance to get to know that boy, who flipped her heart as far back as she can remember, at parties.

This morning, when she opens her computer, she’ll find out whether those sacrifices delivered the winning bingo number.

But to what end? She doesn’t even know what she wants to study. Or where. Or what ATAR number she even needs to do that.

For the uninitiated, the ATAR — the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank — is a number between 0.00 and 99.95 that provides a student’s position relative to all other students in their age group.

Despite it being made up differently in different states, it also allegedly allows comparison across borders and is used by universities to offer placements.

An increasingly useless benchmark

A scaling algorithm which estimates students marks if all courses were studied by all students means some subjects – almost always the maths and science units – are given stronger weighting.

Different universities also use it in very different ways. Some, for example, add a few points if the student has studied particular subjects.

Madonna King ATAR

Universities are offering more early entries, that are not confined to academic performance. Photo: AAP

Some universities now require the top possible mark of 99.95 to guarantee entry into medicine, nursing has shot up the ATAR ranks and midwifery, for example, can now require almost the same rank as medicine to guarantee entry into some universities.

And every discipline has a different ATAR requirement.

But it’s becoming increasingly useless, for a variety or reasons, and this is what we need to grapple with — whether we are parents, students, schools or universities.

In some states, fewer than half of year 12s now sit for an ATAR and are finding other avenues into tertiary study. Parents need to know that when schools — desperate to top league tables and increase enrolment fees — push a child toward ATAR prerequisites.

Universities, too, are offering more early entries that are not confined to academic performance: Sporting skills, music auditions and leadership awards all play a part in students jagging an early place into the course of their dreams.

The ATAR rank doesn’t consider skills imperative to what a student might want to study, either. Let’s take medicine, for example. It might signal a child is bright enough, academically, to cope. But do they have any sort of empathy or awareness or communication skills?

And aren’t they the skills, as parents and educators and policy makers, we know play a greater part in career advancement, across industries?

Push for perfection

But perhaps the biggest reason why ATAR needs to be rethought is the impact it is having on thousands of students choosing subjects in year 10, and studying in years 11 and 12.

Painted by schools and state governments as the academic must-have, the chase for a high ATAR is now the reason psychologists, school counsellors and many teachers are calling for its overhaul.

Students staying up all night to study, days on end. Students who are so exhausted, they are falling asleep at lunch time. Others are popping off to the toilet to vomit, with anxiety. School refusal is up. So are the number of schoolyard panic attacks.

The families of some students, who can afford it, are employing up to six private tutors, and psychologists say their clientele is filled with anxious senior students.

Social media has enveloped this generation with its demands around body image and popularity, but online academic comparison is also now stealing the smiles of too many teenagers.

A push for perfectionism, largely unattainable, is taking hold of girls still in primary school. “Please girls,” one year 12 male teacher says, “look at the marks you got; not the marks that have been deducted.”

“I know that the ATAR doesn’t matter outside of school,’’ one year 12 girl told me, “but when you are in year 12, schools make it seem as though it’s the biggest thing and crucial in creating a successful future and life.”

It’s not, and we need to find a better way to ensure clever, curious children are able to pursue their dreams. The world’s leadership — across politics and music, sport and science — is made of those who worked hard, understood others, were passionate about their plans, and wanted to succeed.

That’s the message we have to give our 17-year-olds this week. An ATAR doesn’t distinguish between naughty and nice. It doesn’t divide winners and losers. It shouldn’t drive tears and fears.

It’s not a deal breaker. A heart breaker. Or a life definer.

It’s simply a number; and one they might not even remember in a few months’ time.

Topics: Madonna King
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