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Should we scrap the ATAR? What are the alternative options? Experts comment

Written by Dr Andrew Harvey (La Trobe University), Mr Andrew Norton (Grattan Institute), Adjunct Professor Gabrielle Matters (QUT) and Dr Tim Pitman (Curtin) for The Conversation

The value of the ATAR is being called into question. Many Australian vice-chancellors have urged for the university admission system to be scrapped, saying it’s “meaningless” and “too simplistic”.

Universities set an ATAR cut-off according to what they believe is the minimum academic standard required to complete a course. But a Fairfax Media investigation revealed that some universities were selecting students with much lower ATARs than required – as low as 30 in some cases – raising questions about the ethics behind enrolling students with such low scores.

But is scrapping the ATAR the answer? Does it really penalise disadvantaged students? And what are the alternative options? The Conversation speaks to experts from across the sector to debate how best to select students.

The ATAR system is efficient but doesn’t highlight students’ full potential

Andrew Harvey, Director of the Access and Achievement Research Unit at La Trobe University

Admissions processes typically aim to meet four principles: efficiency, transparency, equity, and predictive validity. The main advantage of ATAR is its efficiency. For courses of high demand, sorting rankings is a lot quicker than sifting through hundreds of portfolios or interviews.

ATAR itself is fairly transparent, but universities game the system by publishing a high ATAR cut-off and then accepting many students on different criteria. The equity of ATAR is limited, with a well-known bias towards high socio-economic students. Subject selections and weightings influence the ranks in ways that many students do not understand.

Finally, ATAR is a moderately good predictor of success, particularly at the extremes. However, many students have potential not captured in the rank, and many outperform their rank once at university.

Alternative admissions schemes are growing rapidly. Notably, several universities now provide early offers to school students based on principal recommendations. While such schemes often appear more equitable in isolation, there is a risk to efficiency and transparency at a system level.

Students and their parents now have to navigate multiple admissions schemes at multiple universities. Reform needs to focus on the students rather than just the institutions.

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Posted 4 March 2016 Posted in Editorial, General, Low SES