Uni entry shake-up highlights ATAR issues

Perth mother Fiona McLarty with her son and current Year 12 student Robert McLarty. Photo: Tom Norman.

At some stage towards the middle of 2021 mother of three Fiona McLarty started taking note of the way her 17-year-old son, Robert – a Year 12 student at one of Perth’s private boy’s schools – was making use of his time in the lead-up to his first set of mock exams. “He went camping on Friday night with his friends to Lancelin, and on Sunday went and sheared sheep all day!” she recalls emphatically.

Considered in isolation, camping with friends and shearing sheep don’t exactly top the list of concerning adolescent behaviour, but it was the comparison McLarty noticed between Robert and his two older sisters, Genevieve and Josephine which struck her. During their final years of high school, both had been diligent and officious in their approach to study.

“If they weren’t doing a course on the school holidays, they had their nose in their books to the extent that we were saying ‘this is not healthy, you need to stand back, just do a little bit less and you’ll be better off’,” McLarty recalls telling them both.

So, why the difference in attitude? Well, gender, for one. Research conducted by Youth Studies Australia found that males tend to achieve lower scores in standardised tests and demonstrate greater tendency towards disruptive and anti-social behaviour in their final years of schooling.

There’s also the inexorable fact that Josephine and Genevieve both completed their final years of schooling in a pre-pandemic world, whereas Robert’s final two years, 2020 and 2021 respectively, were dislocated by ever-looming lockdowns and overwhelming uncertainty about the future.

Despite these and numerous other potential factors though, the key difference according to McLarty was Robert’s early university offer – provided by the University of Western Australia – to study engineering honours with a bachelor of science in 2022.

Rather than being required to meet the usual pre-requisite year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank score of 80, Robert’s entry was guaranteed based on his already-achieved Year 11 results. “As soon as he got his entry he said, ‘well, I’ve got that now’,” McLarty says. “It’s not like he’s doing nothing, but he’s certainly doing less.”

When it became clear early in 2020 that fighting the spread of COVID-19 worldwide would require the closing of schools and universities at various times, both sectors were eager to meet the moment by offering innovative educational alternatives. Schools scrambled to find new modes of teaching and assessment to maintain student engagement online, while some universities altered their approach to course admissions to guarantee entry for students facing sudden and unexpected difficulties in completing their final year of high school.

For Australian universities in particular, the ban on international travel during the pandemic posed an existential threat to their core business models which relied heavily on international students studying abroad.

Research conducted by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute in 2020 found a reduction in international students of more than 200,000, and a predicted loss of almost $16 billion in the higher-education sector by the end of 2023.

In response, many Australian universities began to offer Year 12 students opportunities for early entry into their chosen degrees based on results from year 11, or their first semester of year 12.

One of the first universities to do so in early 2020 was Perth’s UWA. Despite WA students remaining relatively unscathed by lockdowns and school closures throughout 2021 in comparison to other states, UWA maintained the same early-offers approach in 2021. The reason behind their decision – according to an official press release provided to WA high schools in March this year – was to “help reduce stress and improve mental health and wellbeing among Year 12 ATAR students”.

Perth’s University of Western Australia was one of the first universities to implement an early offers program in 2020. Photo: Tom Norman.

Rod O’Meara, careers and VET coordinator at Perth’s Iona Presentation College, isn’t convinced. “It’s just dollars,” he says, “There’s a lack of demand from international students and they need the money.” Sean Hindley, teacher of humanities and social sciences at Perth’s Shenton College agrees.

‘I think part of it is [for students], but they’re businesses as well, and it’s about getting people through the door, especially with foreign students not being able to enter the country as easily.’

Sean Hindley

Regardless of the incentives for universities, early offer schemes are undoubtedly having an impact in classrooms across the country. “From what I’ve generally seen this year, the students who are intrinsically motivated, they haven’t really been impacted by early offers,” Hindley notes. “But for the students who don’t have that level of motivation… they drop away a lot earlier.”

For Beth Prendergast, one such ‘intrinsically motivated’ student who completed year 12 at the end of 2020, the option for early offers wasn’t as much a necessity as a safety net. “’It did act as a security thing, like, ‘oh, well if I don’t get into this [course] I want then I’ve already gotten entry into another degree anyway’.”

While the immediate impact of early offer schemes on student motivation and engagement in the classroom may be of primary concern to parents and teachers, the emerging long-term consequences should be more concerning for the students themselves.

Research published in 2019 by Studies in Higher Education found that students who entered university with an ATAR of less than 60 faced significant adversity when compared with their peers who scored an ATAR of 80 or higher.

O’Meara explains that, based on the way individual subject scores in Years 11 and 12 are scaled up to calculate an overall ‘rank’ (a number between 0.00 and 99.95), a predicted Year 11 ATAR of 75.00 is the equivalent of a student achieving an average of roughly 56% across their four best ATAR subjects.

This means that, providing they pass English in Year 12, a student averaging a low ‘C’ by the end of Year 11 can be given entry into challenging and arduous degrees in arts or commerce amongst others. “It’s frightening really,” comments O’Meara, “The wash-up will be interesting when it’s all over.”

With 2020 graduates yet to complete their first year at university, it’s still too early to point to quantifiable data on what exactly this ‘wash-up’ will look like. At the very least, there’s likely to be a significant rise in students choosing to withdraw from degrees within the first year due to dissatisfaction or difficulty overcoming academic challenges. Given the average Australian bachelor’s degree can costs a student anywhere from $15,000 – $33,000 per year, it’s a steep price to pay for being understandably persuaded by the increased ease of university entry.

Still, while many are concerned with the immediate impacts that early offers have had in the classroom and the potential consequences they pose to graduates in the not-too-distant future, some see the recent shifts in the educational paradigm as a welcome change from an old and out of date system.

Since its introduction into Australian schools in 2009, the ATAR has proven itself to be an effective, if flawed, system for facilitating university entry by determining a hierarchy of students nationwide based on their achievements throughout years 11 and 12. Students are assessed at the end of their final year, with 50 per cent of their ATAR score based on their school results, and the other 50 per cent based on a final examination.

When the Mitchell Institute conducted research to examine the efficacy and popularity of the ATAR system in 2018, results were mixed to say the least. The study found that only 26 per cent of students used their ATAR for entry into university, and brought into focus larger issues with a system that places such finite emphasis on scores in standardised tests and assessments.

Rather than providing a ranking based on a holistic assessment of how students approach and engage with the process of learning, the ATAR system places results and achievement at its fore. The direct result, according to the Mitchell Institute’s 2018 research, is a student cohort who obsesses over results, class averages and ‘what’s going to be in the test’ above all else.

“I think in class when the teacher tells us ‘you will be assessed on this’, it just makes us go home and study that and try and learn as much as [we] can. Knowing you’re not going to be assessed on something, you instantly delete it from your memory.”

Beth Prendergast

But it’s not only students being impacted by the pressure to meet benchmarks. The competition between WA schools to make annually published school-ranking lists has seen the emergence amongst teachers of a ‘teach to the test to succeed’ mentality.

“It was like ‘this is what you need to know for the ATAR exam’.” recalls Prendergast. “We were given past exams. We pretty much studied the exam and how to answer it. It was so heavily based on how the exam is structured and how you should go about it to succeed in the exam, but not about the content itself.”

The introduction of early offers for students in the last two years certainly didn’t create these issues, but it undoubtedly brought them into sharper focus.

The response of students – to disengage from learning and reduce their efforts throughout year 12 – is, to be fair, completely understandable within this context.

McLarty, for one, is optimistic. “I’ve got to say, I think it’s actually been so much healthier for Rob.” she reflects. “He’s spending time on other, less conventional educational pursuits which will nonetheless, probably at the end of the day, be fruitful for him.”

She also sees the potential shifts in priorities within the education system as beneficial for students, “The single most positive thing to come out of it is the less stress on the kids,” she says, “That they can actually take time and feel that it’s okay to be with their friends; feel like it’s okay to take time some time off.”

Like many of the social shockwaves generated by the pandemic over the last two years, those sent through the education system have had unpredictable consequences that are likely to act as a catalyst for change.

O’Meara, for one, believes the current ATAR system still holds water.

“I still think it’s the best system we have, really. I think that a 50 per cent school result linked with a 50 per cent exam result has benefits, it has merit.”

Rod O’Meara
Students completing their ATAR are required to complete a single exam at the end of Year 12 which counts for 50 per cent of their overall achievement. Photo: Tom Norman.

Others, like Prendergast, aren’t convinced, “I think it shouldn’t come down to one singular exam,” she says. “One exam, compared to, what, four terms of hard work? I don’t think it really adds up.”

Whether directly because of the focus early offers have placed on current flaws in the ATAR system or otherwise, changes in the way students are provided entry into university are likely to shift once the pandemic era has passed. After all, it will no doubt be difficult for universities to put the genie back in the bottle now that students have seen that their strict entry requirements can be abandoned at the drop of a hat.

Regardless of what the future holds for Australian students, these recent changes to the status quo have opened the eyes of many to existing issues in education and sharpened focus on what needs to change.

For McLarty, they’ve drawn her attention towards the benefits of a more nuanced, holistic approach to education. One that doesn’t prioritise a single set of numbers over the lived experience of learning.

“I think it’s really important for [students] to realise that it’s not good to just be focussed so hard on your study for two years without a break.” she says, “I think one of the positives that has come out of it is that kids can learn for the sake of learning [rather than] learning to the test,” she continues. “I think it’s a shame that education’s not really about that right now.”

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