A new report is proposing a rethink on how educators approach senior schooling and tertiary education, and calls for the ATAR to be replaced with a more comprehensive “learning profile”.
The Australian Learning Lecture (ALL) position paper, titled Beyond ATAR: A Proposal for Change, is the culmination of more than a year’s work, the input of several working groups, and a comprehensive mix of leading academics and education experts.
Written by Megan O’Connell, Sandra Milligan and Tom Bentley, the paper covers much more than just the perennial debate about the purpose and limitations of the ATAR.
The 32-page report outlines a vision for how young people can be better served by rethinking the way we approach and assess the senior secondary and post-schooling years; how we can reframe career planning; and how universities can gain a more nuanced understanding of a young person’s potential.
The reason for the project is succinctly explained in the foreword to the paper:
“At present, many young people falter without a clear understanding of how to realise their strengths and achieve their aspirations. Instead, we need to foster every one of their talents … Education is more critical than ever to success in life.”
Schooling and employment
Before outlining three proposals for change, the paper highlights some depressing facts about youth education and employment in Australia.
For instance, 12 per cent of young people are neither in employment nor in education. While attainment of Year 12 has improved over time, one in five young people nationally do not complete it, and in some areas of Australia the completion rate drops to 50 per cent.
Clearly, the issue of geographical disadvantage needs addressing swiftly.
Roughly one in three secondary school students are also “chronically absent”, obviously disengaged from a system that appears to neither serve their needs nor recognise or develop their talents and interests.
Similarly, the paper highlights that the transition from school to work is somewhat bleak, although students with better interpersonal and communication skills find employment much quicker. As the authors point out:
“For over half of young people, the transition to full-time work takes up to five years, with many young people working a variety of part-time and casual jobs. This can delay young people in developing confidence and optimism about their future, making it more difficult for them to forge foundations for working careers, and family and community life.”
Such delays in obtaining work not only have multifaceted effects on young people, they also cost the economy. Research shows that each year roughly 45,000 24-year-olds are underemployed and not participating in education or training.
Further, they “are unlikely to be fully engaged in education or work" for most of their lives, costing the economy nearly "$19 billion over a cohort’s lifetime in lost taxes and increased expenditure on health, welfare and judicial services”.
While some of the cohort above didn’t finish their schooling, the authors note that many did but simply “lost their way”.
The report identifies the difficulties young people are experiencing in planning their pathways after the compulsory school years. Some do not possess the information required to pursue their dreams, or do not have the financial ability.
The authors also highlight that embarking on the “wrong pathway” for a desired career is occurring too, creating a “significant wastage” both in time and money.
The report, therefore, recommends that better career planning in the schooling and even post-schooling years is required, as well as a more informed understanding of what vocational education and training (VET) can offer, rather than just “traditional trades”.
Such career planning will be invaluable, as it is predicted that in the next five years post-school qualifications will be required for most new jobs.
The problem with the ATAR
The ALL position paper argues that “as each year passes, the ATAR becomes less fit for purpose”. Yet, as the paper notes, far too many students consider the attainment of a “good ATAR” to be the most important thing, overshadowing everything else.
While ambition is a great attribute, the authors contend that “young people may abandon their real interests [and] push aside extracurricular activities and part-time employment to focus on achieving a score”.
As well as contributing to a rising number of mental health problems, this “single number” is an inadequate reflection of 13 years of schooling, the paper argues.
Also, the full breadth of students’ previous attainments and qualities are ignored, and the ATAR “is not a reliable predictor of future academic success for students with scores below 70, or success in life”.
And while so much importance is placed on the ATAR in school environments, an increasing number of universities are employing alternative entry routes, including interviews, previous employment, other qualifications and certificates.
The three main proposals
The first proposal is to reframe education from Year 10 to the first post-school year as a “specific developmental phase” where students are given intense support to develop skills, capabilities and knowledge in specific domains.
Learners will be supported to find a “line of sight into work or further study” during this phase that builds on their own unique abilities and interests and moves them towards a “thriving adulthood”.
The second proposal relates to moving away from scores and grades as the sole determinants of a young person’s ability. This could be achieved through a Learning Profile, which would be designed to represent a young person’s “full range of attainments” during the school years and beyond, and across multiple domains.
The Learning Profile would be devised so it could be used by any jurisdiction in a standardised, trusted manner, while also conforming to the jurisdiction’s own reporting, certification and curriculum requirements.
“It would be a living document, enabling young people to chart their learning and development, indicating growth over time,” the authors say.
Finally, the paper recommends that tertiary education providers (including university and VET) “adopt broader, more transparent entry criteria”, including moving away from the ATAR.
As the report states:
“No other educational jurisdiction in the world seeks to rank school-leaving candidates according to a single numerical scale drawn from the complex mix of subjects and certificates on the basis of statistical weighting and moderation.”
A “rich data set”, such as would be contained in the Learning Profile, could replace the ATAR, providing tertiary providers with a much more comprehensive understanding of a learner’s strengths, interests and potential to thrive.
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