Why the ATAR is inadequate

Photo by franny-anne/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by franny-anne/iStock / Getty Images

As another year passes by, we again reflect on the inadequacy of the ATAR  (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) system.

ATARs are being criticised by students, parents, universities (UNSW’s chancellor has an incredible article on how they do not correlate with success), schools and counsellors. They are convenient for policy makers and lazy universities in the short term. However, in the long term, they unequivocally fail the goals of education itself and fail our young people. Firstly, they do not correlate with work-performance or work-success (as the biggest Data Cruncher, Google, has found from their own hiring practices) and, secondly, they do not help students see their potential, determine how they could contribute to society and see how they could live a happy life.  

ATARs reduce vibrant, intelligent, incredible young people to mere numbers. Universities and schools do not see applicants as unique individuals with unique life journeys , achievements and potential which will send ripples through society if activated. Rather, they are just a statistic. However, that’s not the worst aspect of ATARs. It is that they make students believe that this number summarised their human value. ATARs make students evaluate all of humanity on the same arbitrary scale and make them believe that this number summarises their self worth.

When Happy Brain Education celebrated the end of an incredible school year at the end of 2016, we saw powerfully how pointless, and almost traumatic, ATARs were. So, we ran a competition to create a new ATAR system that would both give young people direction for their future and which would be a worthy summary of 13 years of life. The entries were great. Serra Mohammed from Monash University was our competition winner.

One of the greatest takeaways for us as an organisation from this competition was the urgent need to change how much weight and emphasis is placed on the ATAR by students themselves. We need everyone to see that this is a simplistic, reductive and outdated method that is currently only convenient for university entry to a few courses. It is absolutely not a measure of one’s intelligence and what can be achieved in one’s life. This applies both for people at the very beginning, the centre, and the end of that ATAR bell-curve. Whilst this point is completely correct, it is insufficient.

Expecting young people ‘not to worry’ about ATARs is unrealistic. We are putting them through a toxic system of focusing at least 4 years of their schooling on that one number, and then telling them not to worry about it. They see all the adults in their life worrying and asking about that one number. How do you think they will be able to see past it and not think that it reflects their human value?

If we want to create a society of mentally healthy, happy, confident young people, we need to change both our thinking and the system. We cannot have a system that is convenient at the expense of our young people. One of the people who attended one of our ATAR focus groups was a nurse 6 years post-year-12 who was still harbouring feelings of fear, guilt and shame about her ATAR. Her academic confidence and general self-confidence still had not recovered from that ATAR 7 am text-message. Our education system and the laziness of our policy-makers are responsible for that unnecessary and damaging trauma.

At Happy Brain Education, we’ve created ‘SuperHero ATARs’ this year. They are definitely not meant to be a replacement for that actual ATARs, and, at best, will only serve as a feel-good adjunct. They serve to remind us that there is still much work to be done in creating a system that reflects our new world and reflects the diversity of talents of our students.

Zahraa Albadri and Saba Albandar have organised these SuperHero ATARs. They asked students who wanted to get involved to reflect on what their friends’ ‘superpowers’ are, and what unique skills and talents traits they bring to the world. These were compiled and were sent out at 7 am at the same time as the real ATARs.

Student reflections were very heart-warming- ‘Thank you very much! The SuperHero ATAR was a great addition to what a great day it’s been. It was [very] unexpected’ and ‘I think it’s a super cute idea. It definitely put a smile on my face’.

The SuperHero ATARs are not the answer to this problem. The answer is that we should create an alternative system for university admission which reflects diverse intelligences and which tests diverse learning styles and strengths. It’s completely unfair that we tell our young people that only one type of person will be successful in our world.

Richard Gerver, a former teacher and international speaker on education, wrote on this topic in his book ‘Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today. He lamented the damage to young people’s self esteem which occurs through the education system and reflected on how this not only damages the individual but also deprives society of talent and solutions to social problems. He reflects: ‘the development of self esteem must be at the heart of all learning… it makes me wonder, how many great talents have had their flames extinguished by the system? How many gifted, creative people have left their education believing they offer nothing because academia was not their forte?’

The article is written by Naba Masad Alfayadh.