Is the ATAR Actually the Best Measure We Have of a Student's Potential?

How can we know if we're living up to our god-given abilities? Is there a way to figure out what we're truly capable of?

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Dec 5 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is presented by Victoria University

In an age where we're told anyone can be anything, the question of potential is a massive one. How can we know if we are living up to our god-given abilities? Is there a way to figure out what we're truly capable of? There's so much significance placed on a student's ATAR; both schools and the media present high scores as essential for achieving your post-school dreams. But is the ATAR actually the best measure we have of a student's potential?

While it's most certainly an efficient method and can be a good predictor of success at the extremes, there are plenty of people who, despite low or non-existent ATAR scores, are now succeeding in fields as varied as law, medicine, teaching, and the creative arts.

Melina Sarris, a Melbourne journalist, received a score of 77, which was far lower than she expected to get. "The journalism course I wanted to get into required a score of around 95, so at the time I thought I was doomed," she tells VICE. Instead of letting her score get in the way, Melina enrolled in a media and communications course, and after receiving high distinctions in all of her units she was eligible for a transfer into journalism. Flash forward, and she's working in the field she always set out to. "I truly believe that your score doesn't reflect your potential. It might make it easier in the short term, but really, if you're passionate enough, anything is achievable."

For some students, the hype surrounding the ATAR can have a detrimental impact on their perceived potential, making them question their abilities and self-worth. Katie*, now an award-winning junior doctor, tells VICE that after not receiving the score needed to enrol in a science degree, she abandoned going to uni altogether. Had she not regained the confidence to reapply more than five years later, she wouldn't have discovered the potential she had to go on to complete multiple degrees.

Tegan M., a retail manager, explained to VICE that the pressure to live up to her 98.95 score caused her more harm than good. "My high school was all about talking up our potential, to the point where I won the monetary award given to the student that had the most potential to succeed after school. This is all well and good, but it was a lot to live up to," she says. After dropping out of her DipEd and receiving a formal diagnosis of severe depression and anxiety, her psychologist explained that the negative thought pathways at the root of her issues stemmed in part from the pressure to perform well from her school. Things have improved for Tegan, but it's something that still plagues her. "While I'm stable and super high functioning compared to where I started, I struggle daily—or, more accurately, hourly—with thoughts and feelings of not being good enough, failing, and not living up to my potential," she says.

Having just finished year 12, the pressures around achieving the golden ATAR number are still very real for ACT school-leaver Madelyn Hellyer. She tells VICE that she was strategic with her subject selection, skewing it to maximise her potential to achieve high marks. "I was essentially forced to drop subjects that I wanted to take for personal enjoyment, or to learn a life skill, because if I continued to take them it would have dragged down my entire ATAR. I chose every single subject based on what I knew I would get the best mark in," she says. "Now at the end of year 12, I have a very deep understanding of a small subject area: humanities. I have little to no knowledge about maths, science, engineering, art—all things I would have loved to know more about."

She goes on to explain that not only can the looming ATAR influence what students take in school, but what degree they go on to study. "Getting a good ATAR is emphasised so much and kids work ridiculously hard on getting a good number, they don't want to waste all that hard work. I'm guilty of it too," she says. "I saw courses that looked really interesting but the ATAR for them was around 15 or 20 points lower than my estimate. I worked so hard to get my ATAR and now I'm in a position where I feel like I have to go into a degree that will make the most of it."

The negative impact the ATAR (and similar high school rankings) can have on an someone's perceived potential, as well as its limitations as a measure of potential, is something many working in the education sector have recognised. One of the main comments I heard when speaking with educators was how the ATAR system can stifle creativity: students are 'spoon-fed content' and teachers are 'teaching to the test' to maximise scores.

"Most schools spend Year 12 preparing students to do well in an exam, not to do well in life or even at university", says Sarah*, a former high school teacher who is now involved in professional learning. "Many of my former students have commented that they found their first year of university difficult as they lacked the support structure they had at school; they were not used to working independently or taking care of themselves."

Sarah has also found that students leaving school sometimes lacked the technical skills vital for careers in science and technology. "My issue with ATAR is that it focuses almost entirely on outdated paper-based skills to the detriment of tech-based skills," she explains. "For example, in the physics exam you need to do all of the data analysis by hand, but in first year university you're expected to do it on a computer. You aren't taught this skill in high school because it's not in the exam."

So are there any better measures of potential out there?

Pauline Charman, a science teacher of 36 years and now a Community Education Manager at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, believes that focusing on skills other than academic performance may be the key to measuring potential. "The ATAR results do little more than provide a sorting table for our youth at a time when, as people, they are only just beginning on a path of self discovery," Pauline explains. "If we have to give a measure of potential, then maybe we should be focusing on a young person's self-confidence and resilience to determine it. From my own journey and watching thousands of students, I can say that EQ (emotional quotient) rather than IQ (intelligence quotient) wins out every time when trying to gauge the potential of a person." With some courses at tertiary institutions incorporating interviews where students can display their attitude and drive, Pauline is not alone in recognising the importance of emotional intelligence.

Where a measure of academic performance is required, several courses (including art and medicine) involve a portfolio as part of their entry requirement. Other universities offer awards that allow schools to nominate a student who has the potential to succeed but may not have achieved the necessary cut offs. While again not a perfect measure (they favour students who can perform well in a rigid school environment), it goes some way to recognising the potential of students without solely using exams and ATAR rankings.

What do assessment and recruitment experts think?

Chandler McLeod is a company who uses psychometric testing for recruitment and selection, with the belief that a multifaceted approach is important in choosing the right candidate. They focus especially on personality, motivation, communication, and group skills, as well as cultural values to ensure the person is the right fit for a workplace. Testing 'fluid intelligence' (the ability to solve new problems, use logic and identify patterns) rather than the 'crystallised intelligence' often tested in the ATAR (the ability to use learned knowledge and experience) has also been identified as key when assessing potential.

"It's really important that there is a fair and equitable opportunity for candidates to perform at their best," says Ross Anderson, a registered psychologist with Chandler MacLeod. Given that some students do not perform well under stressful exam conditions, it's no wonder that they might not receive an ATAR that reflects their potential.

While the ATAR certainly gives an indication about a person's capacity to learn and perform at certain kinds of tests, they don't tell universities about someone's people skills, communication ability, motivation, passions or the circumstances in which the ATAR result was achieved, all of which are important aspects of a person's potential for success after high school. "The ATAR is a good predictor of how well a student knows the material of the course, but is not necessarily generalisable to the challenges you're likely to face outside of school," Ross says.

*Names changed on request.

This article is presented by Victoria University, who for the first time have decided to remove ATAR scores as an entry requirement for the majority of their courses.

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