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Kevin Donnelly: Time to drop the mediocrity of the ATAR

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Students studying books for School
Australian schools are increasingly being pressured to embrace a ‘care, share, grow’ approach to learning where everyone is a winner, says Kevin Donnelly

It’s HSC examination time and for many Year 12 students their main concern will be how well they do compared to other students and whether their ATAR result will be enough to get them into their tertiary course of choice.

Students undertaking Year 12 and who sit the end of year examinations receive an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) expressed as a percentage that ranks them against other Year 12 students.

The highest score that can be achieved is 99.5 and while academic results are not the only way to measure success many schools boast about the number of students who receive an ATAR of 90 and above.

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While universities employ different approaches to deciding tertiary entry ranging from interviews, work folios and completing a performance ATAR is the principal method used especially for high demand courses such as law, commerce, engineering and medicine.

Notwithstanding it’s a more efficient and reliable system compared to personally interviewing the thousands of students competing to gain tertiary admission and it is academically based, critics argue ATAR is inequitable, out of date and that it must be abolished.

Earlier this year the NSW education secretary Mark Scott described ATAR as a “strait jacket around our kids” guilty of causing “relentless pressure”.

More recently Stephanie Wescott argues against using ATAR as it promotes competition between students and rewards those who are more academically motivated and gifted.

Westcott argues ATAR “privileges students who present to schools with the appropriate academic knowledge and intellectual skills, unfairly marginalising disadvantaged students”.

Westcott, in line with the prevailing cultural-left ethos in education to dumb down standards and reward mediocrity, also opposes standardised tests like NAPLAN and PISA.

Opposed to those who argue in favour of academic rigour and meritocracy where hard work and ability are rewarded Westcott criticises the focus on “measurement and competitive achievement”.

The Australian Education Union, sympathetic academics and subject associations also argue competition and rewarding excellence must be abolished as such an approach supposedly only rewards students who are already ‘privileged’.

Student praying at school desk.
According to Kevin Donnelly, one of the reasons why Australian students under-perform is because overseas education systems promote academic rigour, competition and have high-stakes testing and examinations

What the cultural-left ignores is that competition is a part of life and students on the whole enjoy being rewarded for success. Even worse, if students are wrapped in cotton wool and never made to compete the first time they will experience failure is when they enter the real world and are told that near enough is not good enough.

As a result many young people are entering the workforce unable to cope with the pressure and tight time-lines and lacking the ability to master what needs to be done. Substandard literacy and numeracy skills are also a result of an education system that has been dumbed down.

Also ignored is despite the additional billions invested over the past 10 to 20 years education standards as measured by international tests like PISA and TIMSS and Australia’s NAPLAN results have either flatlined or gone backwards.

And it should not surprise the reason the NSW Teachers Federation wants to get rid of NAPLAN and making schooland system results public is because without state-wide tests it is impossible to measure performance and whether money is well spent.

One of the reasons why Australian students under-perform is because overseas education systems promote academic rigour, competition and have high-stakes testing and examinations.

Australian schools, on the other hand, are increasingly being pressured to embrace a ‘care, share, grow’ approach to learning where everyone is a winner. Equality of outcomes has replaced equality of opportunity.

The NSW education minister Sarah Mitchell as well as Geoff Masters who is leading the NSW curriculum review are opposed to high-stakes testing with both arguing assessment must by diagnostic and collaborative. Apparently, it is wrong to have summative assessment where students pass or fail based on year level precise, rigorous year level standards.

There is an alternative and a way forward. International research proves that academically based, competitive and high-risk examinations and tests characterise the most successful education schools and systems.

While diagnostic assessment has its place to ensure each student is monitored and helped to overcome any weaknesses it is also vital to set high expectations based on the assumption that each student must be challenged and extended to the best of their ability.

The reason Sydney’s selective schools and so many Catholic and independent schools achieve the best HSC results each year compared to many government schools is because they promote academic excellence and competition.

Just like in sport where competitors strive to do their best and to win it’s time to turn our backs on mediocrity and what the one-time UK education secretary Michael Gove terms “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

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