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ATAR scores a weak predictor of individual student performance

A new report shows that ATAR scores are a weak predictor of academic performance for first-year students.

The report by Victoria University’s Victoria Institute for Strategic Economic Studies, and supported by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University finds new evidence of how factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status (SES), non-English speaking background (NESB) and school-rank affect achievement.

Senior Research Fellow at the Victoria Institute, Dr George Messinis explains that while ATAR scores are statistically significant in connecting school achievement with early success at university, they are a weak predictor and should not be used in isolation.

“The report shows that while on average students with higher ATARs achieve higher marks in first-year courses, many high-ATAR students also achieve low marks. And, many low-ATAR students achieve high marks,” Dr Messinis said.

“This suggests that more sophisticated approaches are needed to determine students’ readiness for university study.”

There are interesting findings around SES status using a new measure of SES that is superior to the standard definition used in higher education. The report finds that when controlling for other characteristics of disadvantage, low SES students perform better than high SES students with the same ATAR scores.

“Many low SES students face other disadvantages, associated for example with NESB, which means they need additional support to succeed in their studies,” Dr Messinis said.

School quality is found to have little influence. The report finds that students from lower performing schools according to VCE scores perform better than their peers from elite schools.

Interestingly, the report shows signs that NESB disadvantage reduced among first-year students in 2013.

Victoria University Vice Chancellor Professor Dawkins welcomed the ‘helpful’ report, saying it is very important for universities to provide support to first-year students.

“While on average low ATAR students need more support than high ATAR students, we need to take into account much more than student ATARs in designing our strategies,” Professor Dawkins said.

“Further, just over half of Victoria University’s first-year students enter directly from high school. For the significant number entering from a VET award course or from another institution, performance since leaving school may be more important in securing admission than initial ATAR scores.”

“Equal attention should be given to the many things that determine student success.”

NCSEHE Director, Professor Sue Trinidad, emphasised the importance of alternative pathway entry for equity students.

“Many universities already operate on the evidence that ATAR scores are a weak predictor of academic performance and successful higher education completions, hence the use of more alternative entry pathways. For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, these alternative pathways are vital in providing access to higher education and the opportunities and benefits higher education offers.”

The report supports the findings of a similar study funded by the NCSEHE in late 2014, by NCSEHE Program Leader Associate Professor Mike Dockery and Assistant Professor Ian Li from the University of Western Australia.

Posted 13 May 2015 Posted in General, International, Low SES