An equity perspective on the development of student learner profiles
Nicole Crawford, Paul Koshy, Olivia Groves and Catherine Drane, NCSEHE
In its final report, Looking to the Future, the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways (the “Shergold Review”) made 20 recommendations to the Australian Government to facilitate important changes in the way Australia designs, implements and manages secondary pathways. In its Recommendation 4, the Review called for the creation of learner profiles in Australia:
Students should leave school with a Learner Profile that incorporates not only their ATAR score (where relevant) together with their individual subject results, but that also captures the broader range of evidenced capabilities necessary for employment and active citizenship that they have acquired in senior secondary schooling. (Looking to the Future. Shergold et al., 2020, p. 20).
This feature article addresses some critical issues associated with the learner profile from an equity perspective and poses further questions to help facilitate its development and implementation. While we focus primarily on higher education, the points raised are broadly applicable to education and careers development among secondary students and wider issues around post-secondary pathways.
Passports, portfolios, and learner profiles
A learner profile reports on a student’s capabilities and attainments in addition to common academic metrics such as ATAR. The development of the learner profile recognises the emerging reality for secondary students of passport or portfolio entry becoming the standard, in comparison to the historic reliance on academic measures such as the ATAR. This trend has only accelerated during the COVID-19 period.
From an equity perspective, the learner profile has potential to be an improvement on its alternatives, the passport or portfolio. It offers more scaffolding and structure than a portfolio and more flexibility than a passport. It is also more readily accessible to equity students, including students from low socioeconomic status (SES) areas; students in regional, rural or remote (RRR) areas; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; students from non-English speaking backgrounds; and students with disability. Thus, the profile has the potential to be an inclusive device in both student engagement activities and articulation to post-secondary education and work pathways.
If implemented effectively, the profile should recognise the capitals and capabilities of students from diverse backgrounds; these are strengths that are usually not included in a portfolio. In contrast to a passport, these capitals and capabilities should be more visible in a learner profile than in the more official reporting mechanism of the passport.
Opportunities and uncertainties
The learner profile has the potential to create a more level playing field for accessing university than the ATAR ranking or use of passports and portfolios. Shergold points out that a learner profile takes a strengths-based approach; in such an approach, disadvantage can be viewed as an asset. For example, a student could cite caring for a parent with disability or assisting parents from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds as capabilities and strengths in a learner profile.
Our uncertainty is around the implementation of the profile. If executed without suitable staff training and resources, the learner profile could exacerbate existing inequities. For example, students with parental/school support will be able to build an impressive profile and leverage it to their advantage, while students without those supports might be further disadvantaged. Adequate resourcing and support will be required for students in equity groups for them to participate equitably in the development of their profile.
The learner profile has potential to prompt conversations with significant others, including parents, teachers, and peers, about career and educational pathways. The profile may provide the stimulus to expand the breadth of skills and knowledges that are valued in post-school education and work.
A key feature of the learner profile is its flexibility, with students reflecting on their education and career aspirations and actively planning their future as they build an evidence base to advocate for access to future study and work options. However, the above will be dependent on the presence (or not) of career development teams in schools. Again, adequate resourcing and prioritisation of career support is needed so that students in RRR or low SES schools have access to trained careers staff who can provide high quality career advice.
The learner profile has potential to promote a whole-school approach to career education. A whole-school approach values the expertise of the career advisor but extends responsibility through to the teaching staff in subject areas. A learner passport that requires teachers to report on a broader set of capabilities might help achieve such an approach. At the same time, teachers need training and support to do so. The benefit of this approach is that it can provide a comprehensive set of shared insights for teachers and careers advisors in providing students’ perspectives, aims and reflections on their learning and future aspirations.
An equitable selection tool?
If learner profiles are used by employers and tertiary education providers to inform selection decisions, the profile is a preferred option to the current mix of ATAR, passport and portfolio entry. It combines the strengths of these options, with a chance for a uniform national approach in this space.
Given the more holistic representation of students provided by the learner profile (compared to the ranking system of the ATAR), the profile has the potential to enable a more equitable application/selection process. As noted by Henry and O’Shea, it “would offer universities a more inclusive and holistic means to select eligible students for course entry. It presents a detailed and inclusive picture of the whole student”.
The profile could be used by university admissions teams to “facilitate more equitable access to higher education”. As Henry and O’Shea add: “Used effectively, Learner Profiles offer a more nuanced and balanced understanding of students’ readiness for higher education”; thus, it has the potential to create equitable access to higher education.
The learner profile is designed to give students agency over their learning and support them to be lifelong learners. From an equity perspective, an important consideration is how secondary students who are disengaged from schooling will be involved in reflecting on their learning and monitoring of their learning.
The capabilities captured in a learner profile would be mapped to a capability framework. This framework should be extended to include the senior secondary levels and must be inclusive, recognise the variety of capitals and capabilities, and be flexible enough to be adapted to meet the needs of different contexts.
A national framework would be advantageous for universities. It would allow students to apply for universities in other states and for university admissions teams to be familiar with the capabilities and learner profile.
Further, the ultimate test of the learner profile will be the extent to which it contributes to positive outcomes for the greatest number of students and the broader Australian community. In the context of higher education, collections allow for the mapping of higher education outcomes to academic performance. Extending this by including reference to information from the leaner profile would only strengthen the understanding of all participants as to the impediments to an inclusive higher education system.
The profile has potential for use in the Department of Education, Skills and Employment’s (DESE) proposed Student Equity in Higher Education Evaluation Framework, which is currently mapping higher education data sources to identify opportunities to collect and analyse data in relation to university outreach and careers programs in secondary schools.
Capturing and conveying a breadth of skills
The learner profile should draw on a wide evidence base, including measures of learning attainment and progress, as well as other indicators, including statements from students, parents and teachers. It is critical that the use of evidence ensures students can report on activities and achievements that would not normally be captured in official systems. For instance, if a student has obtained organisational and budgeting skills by running the family home rather than by an internship, is this relevant for inclusion in the profile? If so, how is this information conveyed to future enrolling institutions or employers?
Assessing students’ preparedness for university using the learner profile, by incorporating a broader range of skills has the potential to be both a fairer and more accurate assessment tool and benefit students from equity groups.
Implementation of the learner profile
The implementation of the learner profile will be critical. Preparatory phases will need to ensure that the learner profile does not become another measure that well-resourced, high SES schools adopt, and less-well-resourced, low SES schools are not equipped to manage.
Awareness around the purpose of the learner profile will need to be raised amongst stakeholders, such as employers and universities. In addition, it is vital that the training requirements for participating staff members, including teachers and careers advisors, be identified and planned for.
There is great potential to extend the profile to online and mobile platforms. An online program with prompts to encourage students and staff to explore the full range of their capabilities could be a useful tool for developing the learner profile. However, attention needs to be paid to ensure that all secondary students have at least minimal access to such systems.
Henry, M., & O’Shea, S. (2020). Considering the Shergold Review: Opportunities and implications for equity practitioners. https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/shergold-review-equity-practitioners/
Institute for Social Sciences Research. (2021). Student equity in higher education evaluation framework (2021–2022). Research Project Page. http://researchers.uq.edu.au/research-project/48648
O’Connell, M., Milligan, S.K. and Bentley, T. (2019). Beyond ATAR: a proposal for change. Melbourne, Victoria: Koshland Innovation Fund. https://apo.org.au/node/261456
O’Shea, S. Koshy, P. & Drane, C. (2021). The implications of COVID-19 for student equity in Australian higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. doi: 10.1080/1360080X.2021.1933305
Shergold, P., Calma, T., Russo, S., Walton, P., Westacott, J., Zoellner, D., & O’Reilly, P. (2020). Looking to the Future Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training. Department of Education, Skills and Employment. https://www.dese.gov.au/quality-schools-package/resources/looking-future-report-review-senior-secondary-pathways-work-further-education-and-training
Shergold, P. (2020). In ATAR — Scaled for Injustice? Or just irrelevance? UTS Webinar. The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion webinar. https://www.uts.edu.au/partners-and-community/initiatives/social-justice-uts/news/recording-atar-scaled-injustice-or-just-irrelevance
Vernon, L. & Drane, C.F. (2021). Influencers: the importance of discussions with parents, teachers and friends to support vocational and university pathways. International Journal of Training Research. doi: 10.1080/14480220.2020.1864442