In defence of exams and the ATAR

Blaise Joseph

14 September 2020 | Financial Review
The pandemic has provided an excuse for some progressive education advocates to attempt another coup d’ATAR and recycle tired anti-exam fallacies.

But would you want someone who has never passed a biology exam performing heart surgery on you? Or someone who has never passed a maths exam designing the skyscraper where you work?

Exams are a vital step in any rigorous education system. Despite the clichés of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ and ‘preparing students for the jobs of the future’, doing the hard yards at school to acquire deep levels of content knowledge in the core academic subjects remains as valuable as ever — and this is reflected in our ATAR system for university admissions.

Students are right to work hard maximising their ATAR at this time of the year, and we should all acknowledge how difficult it’s been for the cohort of 2020 amid school closures and Covid-19 disruption.

While the proposed alternatives to ATAR are dressed up in the language of equity and student wellbeing, in reality they would lead to a less rigorous school system that particularly harms disadvantaged students.

The last thing Australia’s education system needs is less academic rigour; given our declining performance on international assessments (despite record levels of per-student taxpayer funding for schools).

Of course, ATARs are not everything, and should be kept in perspective by both students and parents. Students should try their best while appreciating it will not define them.

However, ATAR scores still have significant consequences for students’ futures.

Perhaps the most egregious myth doing the rounds is that the ATAR is no longer relevant and most students enter into university degrees without using their ATAR.

But the truth is the ATAR remains the main means of admission to undergraduate degrees — 80 per cent of Year 12 student admissions are based on their ATAR. And student ATAR ranks are closely related to academic achievement and drop-out rates at university.

The ATAR system isn’t perfect, but the concept of a consistent, quantitative composite indicator of achievement that ranks students is better than alternative options.

A recent proposal is to replace the ATAR with a ‘learner profile’ — a subjective, qualitative portfolio that focuses more on extra-curricular activities and less on academic achievement.

The idea is to reduce ‘exam-related anxiety’ and provide a more ‘holistic’ picture of student ability for university places.

But this would be especially unfair for high-achieving disadvantaged students. Advantaged students tend to have more extra-curricular opportunities, so would gain an unfair benefit in competing for university places against disadvantaged students.

It should be obvious that it’s more fair to assess students on their knowledge of core academic disciplines — like maths and history — than on how well they can write a CV or on how many activities their parents can afford to pay for outside of school. Undergraduate university admissions based on factors other than academic achievement would exacerbate existing social inequities.

And if we want to measure student ability, it’s important we keep exams as the major assessment, because they directly assess student knowledge and skills at a point in time.

Take-home assignments are far less fair in demonstrating proficiency in a subject; for example, students from disadvantaged backgrounds have less access to parental help or tutors at home.

But a coddling ‘learner profile’ approach would likely just move the stress to something other than exams and ATAR ranks — and leave students even less prepared for the rigour of university study.

The harsh reality is there are a limited number of university places for certain subjects and some students who want to go down particular academic paths will miss out — and this inevitably places high stakes on student performance at the end of school, regardless of how it is assessed.

Besides, stress is part of every life for all of us; shielding children from tests neither helps them in the long-term nor prepares them well for future study and job-related pressures.

ATAR ranks and end-of-school exams may be demanding for students. But these crucial tools must be retained if we care about fairness and rigour — the hallmarks of educational equity and excellence.

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