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 We need everyone to see that this is a simplistic, reductive and outdated method that is currently only convenient for university entry to a few courses.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. 

Why Not Completing a VET program in VCE?

Photo:  Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

Yes, why not? A VET Program or Certificate can contribute as an entire subject to your VCE. In other words, you can replace one of your six subjects with a Certificate in Hospitality, Retail, IT and many other areas.

Let me repeat that. You can REPLACE an ENTIRE SUBJECT of your VCE with a CERTIFICATE.

And that is AWESOME for so many reasons.

1. Certificates are not graded like VCE subjects.

When I was in high school 10,000 years ago, I worked at Video Ezy for a few hours every Saturday. While at work, my boss arranged for me to complete a Certificate II & III in Retail with Franklyn Scholar. To complete the Certificates, all I had to do is answering questions in workbooks. Most of the questions were fairly straightforward, such as “What should you do if a customer is behaving suspiciously in the store?” and “Should you count money while a customer is still in the store?”.  In the end, I received a “Satisfactory” and was awarded the Certificates at the end of the year.

Because VET certificate only has Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory benchmarks, you will not have the same pressure to get an A+, and will not have to dedicate as much time and effort to them. As a result, you can spend more time and effort on other subjects.  

2.  Having a professional certificate on your resume straight out of high school is incredibly helpful when applying for part time jobs, programs and scholarships.

Consider that most people have less than one whole page on their resumes after high school: you already have a leg up.

3. Your certificate may be directly relevant to what you want to study in the future.

There are certificates in a multitude of areas, ranging from Health Support Services, IT , Fashion Design, Dance, Music to Engineering. The sky is the limit!

4. Your certificate can really help boost your ATAR.

When I was doing VCE, because I had not planned properly, I did seven VCE Unit 3&4 subjects. However, your ATAR score only takes into account six subjects. Also, the top four scoring subjects, one of which must be an English subject, count 100% of their study scores towards your ATAR, whilst the two lowest subjects count only 10% of their scores towards your ATAR.

Based on that ruling, my lowest subject (7th subject) - Maths Methods - was obviously out.

But here's the funny part: even Legal Studies - my second lowest subject - also DID NOT COUNT AT ALL towards my ATAR.

Why was that the case?

Well, first and foremost, apparently with the Certificate, I actually did 8 subjects. They were:

1.     History: Revolutions (Raw Score: 40)

2.     Literature (Raw Score: 39)  

3.     English (Raw Score: 38)

4.     Religion & Society (Raw Score: 34)

5.     Texts & Traditions (Raw Score: 32)

6.     Certificate II & III in Retail (N/A)

7.    Legal Studies (Raw Score: 32)

8.     Maths: Methods (Raw Score: 28)

Secondly, it's important to remember that your ATAR score is different from your study score. While your study score is based on your performance, your ATAR score is scaled based on how fierce the competition is that year. Each subject is given an aggregate score, or a certain number of points, based on your scaled ATAR study score.

Because the Certificate uses the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system, its aggregate score is calculated based on 10% of the average of my top 4 scores. As the average of my top four scores was 38, 10% of it would be 3.8.  As a result, my aggregate score for Certificate in Retail turned out to be higher than my aggregate score for Legal Studies (32 Raw).

That was why Certificate II and II replaced my Legal Studies to be the sixth subject in the ATAR calculation, and the addition of 3.8 points to my total aggregate score helped me to push just over a 90 ATAR.

An example of VCE ATAR results, mine from 2012

An example of VCE ATAR results, mine from 2012

In short, if you choose to go this route, theoretically your VET program should provide a better score than an alternative VCE subject because it's based on your best subjects. And if you’re a good student, the more points you will get.

5. Conclusion: Be strategic when choosing VCE subjects

Oh the pain

Oh the pain


This is a picture of the flashcards for History and Legal Studies I made in VCE. If I had properly planned my VCE, I would not have made half of these flashcards, and saved countless, COUNTLESS hours pouring over my Legal Studies textbook and trying to fix my Methods grades.

Here is the moral of this tragic story: if you are in high school, especially Year 10s, you should seriously consider not only what subjects you need for uni, not only what subjects you like, but what subjects are most strategic to get the best possible ATAR.

Remember, it’s important to work hard, but you should also learn how to work smart.

If you decide to complete a VET Program, please let Happy Brain or your careers counselor at school know so that we can email the VCAA and make sure the program you choose is eligible.

This blog post is contributed by Rafal Hassan, one of HBE tutors. If you want to ask her more about her experience and tips, please email her at rafal@happybrain.org.au