The Principal ATAR Stupidity

I am desperately trying to get back to hammering ACARA’s junk curriculum and VCAA’s junk VCE materials, but new crap keeps on coming. Here’s another one that must be done, and again it’ll just have to be quick.

On Friday, there was triple-banger reporting on a gang of school principals trying to kill the ATAR, Australia’s single-number entry system for senior students applying for university. First, The Age‘s Adam Carey had a free kick report based upon a letter fed to him, of a dozen Victorian principals approaching VCAA and VTAC with their “concerns” about the ATAR. That was followed by a more critical, levelling up report by Carey, and by an even-handed report by The Herald-Sun‘s Susie O’Brien (Murdoch, paywalled).

Let’s get straight to the point: these principals are fools, and what they are attempting is incredibly damaging. The kids who will get screwed by the destruction of objective standards are, as always, the shitkickers, the kids from everyday tough backgrounds in everyday and second rate public and poorer private schools, who will lose their chance to be evaluated in at least an approximately fair manner.

I don’t have the time or the desire to get into the details of this thing. It is all obvious, and Greg Ashman and CIS’s Glenn Fahey are quoted in the second Carey and the O’Brien articles, saying the right smart things, which is basically enough. I will just make a couple of quick points.

There is no need to remind readers that VCAA is a monumentally incompetent institution, which should be levelled and rebuilt from the ground up. VCAA has destroyed VCE, and more. VTAC is little better, a secret society of answerable-to-no-one boffin-clowns. So, of course the ATAR is pretty screwed. But the solution is not to replace the ATAR by some subjective it’s-the-vibe “learner profiles”. The solution is to establish a clear and proper view of what should be learned, and how to assess what is to be learned in a clear and proper manner.

It should also be noted that this idiocy was not born, or at least not nurtured, in schools. The gang of principals is seemingly led by University of Melbourne “Enterprise Professor“, Sandra Milligan, who is quoted extensively in Carey’s free kick, and who has “spearheaded” the “New Metrics” project. Proving, yet again, that there is nothing so stupid in school eduction that an education academic can’t make it way stupider.

Monash is not to be left out. O’Brien‘s report gives Monash Education lecturer Dr. Fiona Longmuir decent space to bash the ATAR, and the state of schools generally:

Dr Fiona Longmuir from Monash University said there was increasing disillusionment and disengagement in schools

“We know things like ATARs and other published measurement tools increase competition and pressure on students and also prescribe the type of learning that happens.

“It’s not working; we have to think about different ways,” she said.

 Nonsense. The idea that “ATARs and other published measurement tools” are at the heart of “increasing disillusionment and disengagement” is ridiculous. The disillusionment comes from the fundamental meaninglessness of much of schooling. And why, dear Fiona, might that have occurred?

One of the all-time great, effective and devious political quotes was by Ronald Reagan:

Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.

The truth is, the problem is government by dumb thugs, such as Reagan, with no sense of how to govern, and with no recognition of or concern for the existing public good.

Education has been thoroughly perverted in Australia, and one of the strongest perverting forces has been education academia, always heavy on ideology and always clueless on the proper meaning of public education or the means to achieve it. And now we have Longmuir-Reagan lamenting the “disillusionment”. Jesus wept.

Yes, there is disillusionment. Yes, it is already bad. The game is way more rigged, and way more screwy, than it was even twenty years ago. But in order to fix it, in order to restore to the shitkickers a halfway sane and even playing field, Milligan and Longmuir are exactly the wrong people to consult.

Two of my favourite people are, as am I, shitkickers, older shitkickers who made it. These two shitkickers are people whose opinion I value as much as my own, people who I will always approach for comment and tough critique when working on a significant piece. Both these shitkickers, independently, made a point of telling me that there is no way they would have made it in the current system.

It’ll be way, way worse if Milligan and her convenient gang of fool principals get their way.

26 Replies to “The Principal ATAR Stupidity”

  1. It seems that in the letter, the principals argue that school assessment needs to provide a more complete picture of students – that it needs to assess not only their academic ability, but every aspect of their person? that schools should also assess students’ unique strengths and how caring they are? what they do for society? their complete potential?

    I disagree with this and feel like they are trying to solve a problem that isn’t real. Why would we ever expect or want that school assessment should provide a complete measure of a young person? Who wants or needs that? Why can’t we just acknowledge that school assessment is limited? Why should schools take on the responsibility of telling students what they can achieve in life? Instead we can just admit that we are fallible, and they certainly shouldn’t rely entirely on the judgement of teachers to tell them what they are worth and what they can do. Does this seem as ridiculous to other people as it does to me?

    1. Tom Leherer once bemoaned that the US military had reached the point where they were not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, or… ability.

      That was 50 years ago.

      Maybe Australia is just catching up.

    2. Yes, and it feels contradictory. Students need to understand that they’re worth more than the results they get from academic institutions; simultaneously, it’s the responsibility of academic institutions to make all students feel worthwhile?

      It’s in the first article as well; one of the arguments goes ‘fewer students are doing year 12, this is bad, consequently we need to de-emphasise academic achievement, as this is scaring them away.’ But if academic achievement isn’t important, what does it matter that fewer students are completing year 12?

  2. A report on ATAR which covered much of this ground was by Pilcher & Torii (2018). The debate has not moved on much since then. The report contained some interesting statements.

    “The method of calculating the ATAR varies across the states and territories depending on the requirements of the secondary school certificate.” (p. 4)

    “It has also been a good predictor of completions in higher education, with a positive association between ATAR and completion rates, particularly among high and very high scoring students.” (p. 6)

    “A large proportion (around 60 per cent) of domestic undergraduate university offers are reported as non-ATAR/non- Year 12.” (p, 7) (TM: This was still true in 2021.)


    Pilcher, S. & Torii, K. (2018). Crunching the number: Exploring the use and usefulness of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

    Click to access crunching-the-number-exploring-use-and-usefulness-of-the-atar-mitchell-institute.pdf

      1. Because if you can’t advertise on the basis of academic results, why offer (as many) financial incentives for high-achieving students to study at the school? You’d lose money and get not as much out of it, surely?

        1. You can still advertise X percent of students achieved study scores above Y. The lack of an ATAR will not necessarily negate the need for study scores.

          A university may, for example, require a potential Science student to have achieved over 25 in at least one science subject.

          The ATAR was meant to be some national measuring-stick. Until all states and territories are setting the same academic standards for their final year exams, it is all a bit of… not much really.

          That said, the arguments for doing away with the ATAR seem to be centered around student wellbeing, not the fairness (or lack thereof) in the way such a number is calculated.

    1. @aps: In a sense, government schools also give out scholarships because public education is supposed to be free, compulsory, and secular; in fact, it is not quite free, although schools endeavour to make it so.

      1. I suppose so. I guess my point was more that some high-achieving students might be denied the opportunity to go to private schools as an indirect consequence of abolishing the ATAR. I think Red Five is right though; the schools would just advertise based on study scores, so it wouldn’t affect scholarships too much. There’d be worse consequences of getting rid of ATAR, anyway.

            1. Already 60% of students enter university by means other than ATAR (see above). Why not make it 100%?

              You could have a system in which any student who had completed secondary education could enter the undergraduate course of their choice.

  3. I’ve a few questions about a few statements in the the first Carey article, about the letter.

    Firstly: “Those alternative intake schemes are often onerous for students, families and schools, and lack transparency, with no evidence of their effectiveness or fairness, the principals said.”

    Are the principals correct about the “no evidence of effectiveness” part of this? Of course, there could be a few ways of trying to judge the “effectiveness” of these alternative entry schemes, but one way might be completion data. Does there exist completion data for these schemes, and do we know how it compares with completion data for “standard” year12 ATAR entry?

    (One might, justifiably, be cynical about how universities will judge the “effectiveness” of these schemes, but let’s suppose they are acting in good faith – trying to fairly allocate university places to suitable students)

    Secondly: The Carey Baptist principal states “we’re the only country in the world who ranks our students like this.” Is this true? I know that in many other countries, students just directly apply to universities, but often that involves transcripts, SATs, etc. But is Australia the only country with a centralised university admissions system, in which a year12 ranking is a major consideration for entry? (And if we are, I’m not convinced that we’re doing the wrong thing).

    There was plenty of other stupid stuff the principals said, but these at least seemed like fairly straightforward factual claims. If no one knows the answer(s) off the top of their head, I’ll do a bit of googling when I’ve got some more time.

    1. Thanks, SRK. That “only country in the world” thing also struck me as implausible or, if true, only true in some sneaky use of the terms. But in any case the single number thing isn’t what they really hate: what they really hate is external exams.

    2. I did a quick look at other countries and, sure enough, I could not find a county with something comparable to ATAR.

      I’d like to do closer investigation (a PhD in education?) by examining all the systems around the world. Of course I would have to visit these countries to get an accurate picture.

  4. Shitkickers. I was the first in my family to attend university and was basically outcast. No money. From the country. No chance.

    I only made it because I did well enough on the exams that I could get a couple of key scholarships. Once I was at university things changed.

    People talk often and loudly about helping low SE students without understanding that what would really help is just doing the most obvious things BETTER. Babies and bathwater.

    Anyway, thanks for the post Marty.

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