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Discussion paper

Crunching the number: Exploring the use and usefulness of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR)

Higher education Educational tests and measurements Australia
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The ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) was designed as a tool to facilitate university admissions, but has taken on a life of its own, becoming a goal in itself.

While this ranking of school leavers remains important, it is also true that in 2017, 60 per cent of undergraduate university offers were made on a basis other than ATAR. This would surprise many young people, as it seems at odds with the message reinforced by many schools, families and the media – that the ATAR is everything.

The transition from school to post-school life and tertiary study has never been more important. The world – including the ways in which we learn and work – is changing rapidly. Higher levels of education are likely to be required for the jobs of the future (Commonwealth Department of Employment, 2017). As a result, completing Year 12 is fast becoming the norm. In 2016, Year 12 school retention was at 83 per cent (ABS, 2017b). This is up nearly 10 per cent from 2000 (ABS, 2000).

More people are also entering higher education (including students from a range of non-traditional backgrounds) and are doing so at different points in their lives. There has been strong growth in postgraduate study, as people continue or top up their education over time. This means tertiary institutions need, and often want, to make admissions decisions on the basis of an applicant’s demonstrated experience, aptitude and suitability, or to facilitate equity of access. Despite the existence of a common entry framework utilising the ATAR, universities are free to set their own admission criteria and standards. For a number of years, over half of undergraduate offers have been made on a basis other than ATAR (Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, 2017c).

In short, Year 12 now needs to work for a majority of young people, and admission to tertiary study is now much broader than school leavers and school results. In the middle of all this sits the ATAR.

The Mitchell Institute’s past work has explored the education continuum from many angles – but always with a view to creating a more integrated, equitable and purposeful education system (Lamb, Jackson, Walstab, & Huo, 2015; Noonan, 2016; Torii & O’Connell, 2017). We have found the transition from school to tertiary study or training to be a key piece of this puzzle.

Therefore, this issues paper asks, exactly what role does the ATAR play in this transition? How is its use changing over time? What problems do we see emerging? Then, after an examination of the policy considerations, we ask, if we were designing an education system for the future, what would this transition look like?

This paper seeks to highlight the issues and provide the evidence to inform the debate. At the conclusion, and as a way forward, we provide some priorities to guide our thinking, and some proposals for change, which are open to debate.

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Mitchell Paper 01/2018