‘Practically perfect’: why the media’s focus on ‘top’ Year 12 students needs to change


You may be familiar with the popular TikTok trend, #ATARreaction. You see the face of a Year 12 student logging on to their computer, then they wait a few moments before they collapse in tears, relief and celebration.

You have just witnessed them receive their final results.

It is Year 12 results season around Australia. Earlier this week, Victorian and New South Wales students got their marks. Results in Queensland are out today, with Western Australia and South Australia due on Monday.

Accompanying these scores will be countless celebrations and commiserations, as thoughts turn to life after school. There is also a huge community focus – via the media – on students who achieve perfect or near-perfect scores.

The same kinds of stories focus on the very high achievers each year. While this may seem like a joyous ritual, we should pause to consider how we frame the end of Year 12 and “success”, and how we can help students navigate these turbulent times.

An annual media event

There is a distinct pattern to the stories about results each year.

For decades, we have been conditioned to expect the reporting of ecstatic scenarios, with students celebrating high or perfect scores and talking about their feelings and plans.

A selection of headlines this week include, “Practically perfect in every way,” “The top student in every HSC subject revealed”, “Joy at HSC band 5s and 6s” and “Meet the duxes of 2023”.

There are also retrospectives on past students who have excelled and showcases of schools with the most top students.

Social media has only exacerbated these public displays, with ATAR “reaction videos” garnering millions of views on platforms like TikTok.

This reinforces a set narrative to receiving your results: you get them and are immediately overjoyed. While these students should – and have every right to – celebrate their achievements, not all students will feel this way.

A narrow definition of success

Alongside these scores for individual subjects, many students will also receive an ATAR ranking, which tertiary institutions use to help select applicants.

Disproportionately focusing on perfect scores and rankings narrowly defines what success can be. Indeed, because the ATAR is a percentile rank, these perfect scores are only ever possible for a handful of students.

It is also worth remembering that all such scores and rankings are to simplify a very complicated and complex phenomenon – student learning.

Any “one size fits all” approach overlooks how success will be different for different people.

For some, it might be completing Year 12 despite considerable personal hardship or disadvantage. For others, it could be securing entrance to their preferred course and university.

Failing to embrace diverse definitions of success fails to acknowledge the circumstances and contexts of students and communities. It affects not only this year’s cohort but also younger students who are exposed to this media coverage and are conditioned to think this is what success is.

How can we approach it this time?

There are many ways we can overcome this one-dimensional view of schooling success. But it requires an intentional shift to the way schools, politicians, the media and the broader community understand and discuss ATAR rankings.

First, we should openly acknowledge there is more to life than ATAR and being on an honour roll.

We should publicly celebrate not only the “practically perfect” but also the many different kinds of success our students achieve.

Not every student will even receive an ATAR (some opt not to), as this ranking is only used to determine entrance to some courses at some tertiary institutions. Many universities offer places to students without using ATAR rankings, including pathway options (such as upgrading to bachelor courses through diplomas and associate degrees), vocational study and alternative entry schemes.

Put differently, the ATAR only helps determine a student’s entry into a university or course right now. It does not determine which university course they will ultimately enter and complete via these additional possibilities.

Second, we should emphasise learning is a lifelong process.

This year’s Year 12s will encounter many different educational needs and opportunities over their lifetime. This might entail formal education via universities and TAFEs, but also on-the-job professional or vocational training and micro-credentialing.

These offerings will likely have nothing to do with a student’s ATAR.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we should encourage students to share any anxieties they have with their parents and peers.

By publicly discussing the multiple pathways into university and what the ATAR actually means, schools, universities and families can help students minimise their mental health concerns.

Check in with each other, both in the lead-up to results and in the days and weeks after. Above all else, remind students they are always more than a score.

Author Bio: Steven Lewis is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University