This year’s ATAR could be even less predictive of student success than usual


With Covid-19 now under control in Australia, it is likely that most secondary schools will reopen in term two. This is good news as there has been much concern about the impact of the shutdown on students’ year 11 and 12 studies and their transition to university or college.

There are eight different school systems across Australia, one for each state and territory, and each organises the assessment of year 12 differently, from incremental assessment of termly units to a strong focus on end-of-year exams. Each system is now adjusting its approach in light of the disruption to ensure that there is a clear year-12 outcome for all students in 2020, and some commentators worry that the changes might weaken the outcome. But the take-home message from the variety of existing systems is that there is no right way to assess year 12. Students from each state and territory go on to the same broad range of post-secondary courses and careers despite the disparities in how they are assessed.

Nor should we worry about whether it will be possible to calculate an ATAR (which takes all the year-12 outcomes for a state and allocates students across one of 2,000 rankings, from 99.95 downwards). Each state already uses different ways of assessing, scoring and scaling, yet it has proved perfectly possible to produce a common ATAR.

The real impacts of Covid-19 on year 12 lie elsewhere. The first is on what students actually learn – and, therefore, on their readiness for further study and training. Universities need to know whether there is any likely change in entrants’ knowledge and capability that could require change to commencing study units.

The Innovative Research Universities group argues that the current level of public information about year-12 learning outcomes is insufficient and too variable across the nation. The public is also excessively focused on students’ ranking – their performance relative to the cohort. The pandemic response offers the opportunity for state and territory authorities to set out the learning outcomes more publicly, while seeking to minimise the impact on these outcomes of the shift to home learning.

The other question arising from the shutdown is whether some year-12 students have suffered greater disruption than others. The most at-risk group is clearly students who are marginally attached to school. The difficulties of home-based study may have caused some to cease studying entirely. They will fail to gain the year-12 certificate or even drop out entirely unless school systems make additional investments to identify and support them.

Meanwhile, for students seeking entry to university courses with high ATAR thresholds, a small change in ranking could be significant. Assuming that their home environment is conducive, the most academically inclined are likely to have continued studying through the shutdown with little problem beyond the loss of access to some classroom resources. But students whose school environment strongly supports their academic performance may slip more than the norm. Hence, the leading students for 2020 could come from a greater breadth of schools than normally.

However, studies of students with similar ATARs show that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as well as other disadvantaged groups, already tend to do slightly better at university than their rank would suggest. The regressive impact of Covid-19 on students from low socio-economic groups – who are least able to study at home due to lack of necessary tools and study environment – will further weaken the ATAR’s ability to predict future success.

Hence, the implied precision of its 2,000 bands looks especially dubious in 2020. While a rank of 80.15 is likely distinct from one of 89.35, the distinction between 90.05 and 90.25 is likely to have even less meaning than usual.

A simple response would be to reduce the number of ranks to, say, 100. More radically, we could accept that all students above a given rank are more than capable of university study. Random selection from all those above it would suffice when numbers need to be limited. And that might well be true in normal times as well as extraordinary ones.

Author Bio: Conor King is Executive Director of the Innovative Research Universities group.