Principal Marc Light looks at the camera, he is wearing a grey suit and smiling. The King David School's logo is behind him, silver on a wood background.

Questioning our tertiary admissions model

Over the past weeks a debate has resurfaced regarding the merits of the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) as a measure of student attainment in the final years of schooling. Last week, a group of principals from both the independent and public systems wrote to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) and the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) to outline their concerns regarding the failings of the current system.

The principals argued that the “bluntness” of the examination-based measures lacks the sophistication to holistically assess a student’s learning and capabilities and that, as such, “these arrangements no longer seem fit for purpose for many, perhaps most learners”.

The group has recommended that the relevant authorities adopt assessment measures which create a learner profile which can also acknowledge other characteristics such as “communication, caring and creativity”.

The call from this principal group is not new. For some time, significant concerns have been expressed regarding the way that the VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) assessments tend to favour particular skill sets over others. This is especially true of the emphasis on fluency in writing under time pressure over other important skills which might include a greater emphasis on oral presentation and creativity.

Further concerns relate to the overarching emphasis on the final year exams and how these place students under significant pressure. One of the systemic challenges that proponents of change need to tackle is ensuring objective marking processes while maintaining efficiency in terms of cost and turnaround.

The current system relies on a mix of externally assessed examinations or performances and some internal school assessments where teachers are afforded some flexibility in design. These internal SACs (School Assessed Coursework) or SATs (School Assessed Tasks) are then statistically moderated against the examination performance to ensure comparability of marks. The downside of this process is that despite the attempts to distribute the pressure over the course of the year, the end of year VCE exams remain high stakes both because of their significant direct contribution to the ATAR and also because of the less direct influence through the VCAA’s complex statistical moderation processes.

The University of Melbourne has launched the New Metrics Project which is focusing on alternatives to the ATAR. Some of the international models that are frequently discussed include variations on a learner profile, favouring application essays, statements and interviews and utilising objective IQ type tests.

One interesting idea that is often referred to is a less competitive competency-based model where students attain badges when they can demonstrate proficiency in a certain capability much like the badges issued at Scouts. Rather than one numerical ranking, students would be able to prove their capacity in relevant areas in order to be considered for admittance to tertiary pathways.

Another factor that must be taken into account is the rapid integration of Artificial Intelligence software including ChatGPT and Google Bard. Any modification of the tertiary admittance system will have to incorporate strategies to ensure that a student is not able to obtain an unfair advantage through misuse of this technology. Those that for years have been predicting the death of handwriting and timed assessments might need to rethink as the new software may necessitate the continuation of such measures.

I am pleased that the educational community is discussing how to adapt our tertiary admittance model to ensure greater equity and to reduce the pressure and stress placed on students. I hope that any outcomes that are implemented encourage students to develop curiosity, a love of learning and a broad range of skills that facilitate their future success.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light