The academic hand-wringing about the ATAR continues apace. Last year, it was the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University that produced its distinctly underwhelming anti-ATAR paper; now, a group sporting the bizarre name of the Australian Learning Lecture has thrown its hat in the ring.
The report is made up largely of the usual, predictable guff: “narrow measure of success”, “broad range of capabilities such as communication, collaboration and creativity”, “student-led models of real world learning”, etc., plus the usual nostrums about industry leaders (praise be unto them) now requiring “pathways that align” with their needs. Any teacher who has seen a few such documents over the years could have written most of it in their sleep.
The recommendations, as far as one can make sense of these vague suggestions, are similar to those of the Mitchell Institute report. I might add that it is somewhat ironic for the Harvard admission process to be mentioned with approval, given the recent scandals which have demonstrated how the wealthy are able to game entry to elite US colleges.
A précis of the attitudes that gave rise to the report appeared in this morning’s SMH, and it is worth looking at the statements there in some detail. Here we go:
The ATAR is widely considered a pure measurement of a student’s academic capacity.
There are a number of unsupported generalisations in this piece. I don’t know a single person who would define the ATAR as such. It is simply a general measure to determine suitability for tertiary study: it has no other purpose. It is not “a single number that defines you” (no-one ever suggests that it is, other than those who denigrate it), and it is not a “pure” measure of academic capacity or ability. It is simply a tool to be used by tertiary institutions, nothing more.
The ATAR sits at odds with how we might imagine education as a democratic, free-thinking and critical pursuit dedicated to the development of the individual.
No-one ever seems inclined to explain properly why the ATAR militates against the expression of well-founded individual opinions based on critical reflection. Largely because, well, it doesn’t.
In its current form, the ATAR privileges students who present to school with the appropriate academic knowledge and intellectual skills…
Loaded words like “privilege” cannot disguise the fact that without some form of discrimination in terms of academic knowledge, it would be a tad difficult for universities to manage their admissions at all. But we continue:
…unfairly marginalising disadvantaged students and those who encounter family, personal or mental health challenges throughout their VCE or HSC.
If you were not left open-mouthed by the part in bold here, it could only be because you have not encountered the misadventure/special provisions industry at close quarters, as I and most other erstwhile Year Advisers have. The idea that the HSC cruelly ignores those who have genuine (or, more often, exaggerated) causes for special consideration is, in a word, ridiculous.
“70 per cent of learners will neither enter university nor use the ATAR”. And yet, our preoccupation with comparing our students against their peers begins in grade 3.
This magnificent non-sequitur conveniently ignores the obvious fact that the ATAR has nothing to do with NAPLAN. The former is a summative rank for universities, the latter a formative assessment tool with significant implications for all students, not just those intending to study at university.
Beginning in primary school, our system relies on de-personalising students, removing as much of their individuality as possible so that they can work towards meeting general benchmarks and standards.
Teachers report pressure to prepare their students to perform in NAPLAN, in a high-stakes environment where a school’s results are seen to reflect their ability to prepare students to compete nationally. Research has reported that this leads to a narrowing of the curriculum, with schools focusing on what is necessary to prepare students for the tests.
It would be interesting to see which “research” is being referenced here, as this ubiquitous depiction of schools frantically drilling their students for NAPLAN to the exclusion of all else seems to be contradicted by the experience of every primary school parent I’ve spoken to in the last five years.
This results in inauthentic learning experiences…
What does that mean?
…and greater barriers for minority students.
The Beyond ATAR report suggests a framework-based approach to recognise various forms of student achievement, which could be introduced at younger year levels. However, this would threaten to further entrench social and economic disadvantage, with funding inequity leading to vastly different opportunities available across the public and independent sectors.
Credit to the author for including this little caveat, which of course constitutes the whole problem with this and similar ideas. Who is likely to get more of a chance to stuff their “Learner Profile” full of impressive-sounding co-curricular material? You guessed it – the children of the rich and well-connected. And no amount of tinkering with funding is likely to alter that significantly, by the way.
We also need to be prepared to consider students’ capacity to demonstrate qualities not just for their economic value, or for workforce preparation, but for their value to the individual or to the community. This requires consideration of what it means to be a successful individual, not just a successful learner. This would mean looking to existing policy documents such as the Melbourne Declaration, a broad-ranging plan outlining the crucial skills and attributes of Australian learners, and the Australian Curriculum’s General Capabilities, which touches on skills such as critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. For these to hold equal weighting to academic achievement, teachers and schools would need to be appropriately resourced with time, professional learning and support to address these meaningfully.
So finally, we get to the nub of it. The whole thing is, of course, yet another Trojan horse for the 21st-century-skills crowd. To vary the metaphor, it is another shot in the war for education policy that is being fought between politicians, who are answerable to the public, and the smug ideologues of the Ed academic establishment, who are, as always, answerable to no-one.