Learning recognition beyond an ATAR

Recently, Dr Peter Webster, Principal Leader of John XXIII Stanhope Gardens, shared his latest blog The NSW Higher School Certificate – Looking Back to Look Forward. Peter’s piece was a detailed reflection about the current three-way relationship between the New South Wales Higher School Certificate (HSC), the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) and university pathways. In ‘Looking Back’, Peter provided an insight into the history of the graduating credential in New South Wales dating back to the 1960s.

Through his historical reflection, Peter raised credible provocations including the long term future of the HSC. In summary he noted:

  • Qualifying Certificate – redundant 1967
  • Intermediate Certificate – redundant 1967
  • Leaving Certificate – redundant 1967
  • School Certificate – redundant 2012
  • The Higher School Certificate – REDUNDANT ???

Furthermore, as part of his reflection Peter also wrote:

  • Tertiary Entry Score – redundant
  • Tertiary Entry Rank – redundant
  • Australian Tertiary Admission Rank – REDUNDANT ???

There was even the suggestion that the ATAR may already be redundant. As Peter wrote, “except for intense competition between applicants in a small number of courses and universities, most people who want to attend university can do so.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, universities had been looking at more than the ATAR when considering admissions to their courses. Since the pandemic universities have increasingly bypassed the ATAR by offering a record number of early offers. In fact, the escalating prominence of early offers over the last few years would indicate that the need for an ATAR is even less that what appears in the diagram above as reflected by my recent tweet.

Of course, state and territory educational jurisdictions offer more than the ranking reflected by one mark on one day. In News South Wales each student receives a certificate upon completion of secondary school. The Higher School Certificate (HSC) comprises a compilation of marks and ‘bands’, reflecting the standard achieved within each course. Schools often take the time to complement the HSC by offering awards, prizes and references which reflect the personal and holistic uniqueness of each individual student. 

However, we need to go further, much further.

Recently, Professor Sandra Milligan, Enterprise Professor & Director ARC, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, stated, 

We should be able to put in place a system that enables every kid to show where they’re strong, what they can do and be able to use that to go where is best for them. And at the moment, we don’t have that system; we’ve got an examination and an ATAR system.”

Professor Sandra Milligan, Enterprise Professor & Director ARC, Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

The changes required for a new, ‘fit for purpose’ education system will require great courage from educational system leaders. It will also require governments to trust those trained in education and action research – teachers and contemporary academics. More likely, the transformation of education will come from within, from innovative schools and individual change agents who collectively reveal new ways of learning. Such a reality will ensure each child becomes a young adult who knows themselves and their skills well enough to find a meaningful place in their world.

In their most recent report, Report 3: Framing success for allLearning Creates Australia identifies changes required for senior secondary certificates to support the new definitions of success that learners, teachers and employers want and need. As a way forward we could take seriously the ‘Shergold Review’ – Looking to the Future – The Review of Senior Secondary Pathways. The Review made 20 recommendations to the Australian Government to facilitate important changes to the design and management of secondary schools pathways. Most notably, Recommendation 4 called for the creation of learner profiles in Australia by stating,

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.

In a positive development, the New South Wales government appears to be taking seriously the need for a Learner Profile. Although labelled a Digital Wallet (the differences between a wallet and a profile need to be clearly understood when moving forward), the NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell confirms “Students, industry and universities have been sharing with us what they want included in the learner profile,” Ms Mitchell said. 

Along with Tracey Breese (quoted in the above hyperlinked article), other principals and other key leaders in half a dozen NSW schools, I was fortunate to attend a NSW Learner Profile Workshop day earlier this year with Eric Land and his Education Wallet Team at the NSW Department of Education. The work done to that point in time by Eric and his team was extremely impressive. The wallet/profile will enable students to showcase the very best of who they are and what they can by bringing together in one virtual place formal academic attainment, micro-credentials, VET certification, work-related courses, performing arts and sporting progress, formal examination results, and the list goes on.  The information shared at any given point in time can flex up and flex down depending upon purpose and audience – think closed job application as compared to open public profile.

For the sake of each and every student, the development of a Learner Profile needs to remain an ongoing and top priority. Each student needs to receive equitable access to a Learner Profile which expresses the very best of who they are, what they can do and what problems they want to solve, and from as early as Kindergarten, if not before. South Australia is leading the way with its Capabilities & Learner Profile Project. The project is working with 30 pilot schools who include assessment of capabilities alongside academic achievement (grades) to provide a more holistic view of graduates’ achievements. Pleasingly, the work is not just focused on senior secondary students.  This project is central to the SACE Board’s commitment to enable all students to thrive through provision of a connected, future-focused, and internationally sought-after qualification. The aspiration is for the SACE (South Australian Certificate of Education) Learner Profile to demonstrate a student’s capabilities, showcasing their achievements following 13 years of schooling and to enable them to make better decisions about their post-school pathways that match with potential employers and further education providers.

As South Australia has concluded, the real key to a profile of national significance requires regular, reliable and trustworthy assessment of a broader range of evidenced capabilities (Shergold, Recommendation 4) with reference to a yet to be developed national capability framework for all. A national framework would ensure consistency across states and territories for both school and post school learning. The framework will need to be a continuum, accessible for students in early years of learning right up to and including adults in a post school world; after all, we all know that learning is lifelong!

Work on assessing and reporting on ‘evidenced capabilities’ continues to be the main focus of The New Metrics Project. For two years a coalition of First Mover Schools from across all Australian states and education sectors has engaged in rigorous collaborative research led by the University of Melbourne. The project continues to produce work which sees a movement away from the traditional ‘grammar of schooling’ most notably through the development of assessment tools for complex competencies. A recent development has been the generation of sample profiles that recognise a broader range of what a learner knows and can do.

The work of The New Metrics Project will contribute to a national capabilities framework which would also be advantageous for universities as it would add more value than one mark on one day. More importantly, the expression of evidenced capabilities as part of a greater Learner Profile will offer an opportunity for better, more rounded educational outcomes for the greatest number of students. 

Despite the need to engage in rigorous processes to develop Learner Profiles for students, in mid December when HSC/VCE/SACE etc., and ATAR results are released, we will still see the media bombard us with league style comparisons of schools and their end of year results. There will also be many schools, promoting enviable ATAR results of students suited to an examination approach to learning. However, I remain positive that one day, and one day soon, each one of our students will leave each one of our schools with more than one number on one day and a certificate filled with only marks and bands. I look forward to the day, hopefully one day soon, where we will have a Learner Profile which showcases the very best of who a young adult is and what they can do so they can find their place of meaning in this rapidly changing world. 

Who knows, when this becomes a reality the ATAR may become redundant.

As always, comments, questions and provocations are welcome.


References and Hyperlinks

 “Your ATAR isn’t the only thing universities are looking at.” 20 Mar. 2018, https://theconversation.com/your-atar-isnt-the-only-thing-universities-are-looking-at-93353.

“HSC 2022: ATARs bypassed by universities; students receive early ….” 13 Sep. 2022, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/universities-bypass-atars-as-record-number-of-students-receive-early-offers-20220906-p5bfvf.html

 “Is it time to rethink year 12 exams? – ABC News.” 5 Nov. 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-11-06/atar-year-12-exams-time-for-rethink/101599868.

“Framing success for all – Learning Creates Australia.” https://www.learningcreates.org.au/media/attachments/2022/04/01/learningcreates_framingsuccessreport_march2022.pdf

“Looking to the Future: Report of the Review of senior secondary ….” 23 Jul. 2020, https://www.education.gov.au/quality-schools-package/resources/looking-future-report-review-senior-secondary-pathways-work-further-education-and-training.

“Capabilities & Learner Profile – SACE Board.” https://www.sace.sa.edu.au/innovating/capabilities-learner-profile. Accessed 5 Dec. 2022.

“An equity perspective on the development of student learner profiles.” 5 Jul. 2021, https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/research-database/equity-perspective-student-learner-profiles/.