An article from the Examiner Newspaper, Launceston, 7 August 2022 Author: Caitlin Jarvis
A Northern Tasmanian school is leading the charge to revolutionise education in the state by ditching the ATAR as the sole measure of academic success.
Scotch Oakburn College is the only Tasmanian school involved in a national pilot research program undertaken by Melbourne University that is examining the role of the ATAR as an indicator of academic prowess.
The program, which has been underway since the beginning of the pandemic, has allowed Scotch Oakburn to develop a set of 10 “Learner Attributes” that are measured by teachers against a rubric of soft skills.
Skills measured include communication, leadership, self-regulation and time management and so far, Scotch Oakburn has embedded four of the 10 Learner Attributes into its reporting. Scotch Oakburn Principal, Andy Müller, said Learner Attributes measured existing observations made by teachers, but provided a tangible measure of a student’s growth.
“Learner Attributes are skills that talk about the character of the person, so we’ve got a much better picture of the whole person, not just whether you can learn something,” he said. The developments at Scotch Oakburn are part of a broader trend occurring in education in Tasmania, where the importance of the ATAR is being slowly eroded as the single most important indicator of success.
A staunch critic of the ATAR mode, University of Tasmania Vice-Chancellor Rufus Black swiftly dispatched the ATAR for admissions to UTAS.
Three years ago UTAS implemented the Schools Recommendation Program, which does a similar thing, and talks to teachers and schools to measure a student’s aptitude for the course they’d applied for.
Professor Black said the ATAR was “useless” and said it was an arbitrary number that perpetuated the cycle of disadvantage.
“ATAR is a total failed measure, it distorts learning and is inequitable, it perpetuates disadvantage,” he said.
Professor Black said the ATAR was an arbitrary number and didn’t assess a person’s aptitude or competency.
He said in an ideal world, the ATAR would be scrapped.
Image source: The Examiner
IS THERE A PLACE FOR ATAR?
Mr Müller and University of Melbourne researcher Jayne Johnson said they hoped the learner profiles would “complement the ATAR” rather than replace it. However, they said the application of the learner profiles would be wider than only tertiary admissions.
“A young person deciding they might want an apprenticeship could also be showing their general capabilities, such as their capability to self-regulate or to manage themselves, their timeliness,” she said.
“Those sorts of things, they’re what employers are often interested in. So yeah, we see this as having relevance for students who want to go off into the workforce and maybe continue to develop those skills in through their work as well as people that would go into, you know, more formal, tertiary education.”
Ms Johnston said a complimentary piece of research was underway in the La Trobe Valley, in the employment space, after the closure of coal-fired power stations there.
Employers asked Melbourne University to develop profiles for all the workers who were at risk of redundancy, to help find them new and meaningful work in other industries.
“We’ve done exactly the same sort of work with employees, to help them understand better what their skills are. And with the employers to see you know, can is that helping us match the right people to the right jobs.”
Professor Black said the ATAR was still used in high-demand courses at UTAS, such as medicine and law, and while he saw a place for it in competitive industries, he remained a staunch advocate of removing barriers to education.
Mr Müller said the Learner Attributes would be given to students at the end of their formal education and would show their development over time.
COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY
Mr Müller said Scotch Oakburn had developed 10 Learner Attributes, and had implemented four of them into their reporting for parents and students.
He said they had developed rubrics for how to measure and report for teachers, who were already making these observations – without having a way to measure them.
However, one important distinction is what success is. “We’ve drawn up these rubrics to where you will be, what does it look like if you’re an outstanding collaborator for your age group,” he said. “So they are placed on the spectrum and identifying that progression….and that development is very personal for each individual.”
Students are measured against themselves, rather than each other and are aware of their progress. So if they make strides in those areas – they’ve won. “And as long as you are developing in progressing that is success”, he said.
Scotch Oakburn first started developing the ideas behind what would become the Learner Attributes about six years ago – using the Round Square model of education. Round Square helps to identify personal skills that help students interact better with others and get the most out of their learning experiences.
UTAS Vice Chancellor Rufus Black Image source: The Examiner
DEBUNKING ATAR MYTHS
Scotch Oakburn is not the only school in Launceston bucking the traditional education trend. Launceston is also home to the Tamar Valley Steiner School, which opts for practical learning over traditional curriculum-based lessons.
It is also home to one of two Big Picture Schools, which assesses students through a portfolio of work each year, instead of traditionally with exams. Professor Black said the Big Picture School model was also one accepted at UTAS as an alternative to ATAR admissions, and he strongly believed in its value.
“One of the myths perpetuated about not using the ATAR is that it has an impact on education quality or excellence”, he said.
Since the introduction of the School Recommendation Program, UTAS has not seen an impact on its academic excellence at all, and Professor Black said they’d been able to collect data to show students who came through the program had the same or better outcomes after their first year than ATAR students.
Professor Black said Tasmania had a rigid education system and wanted to see more flexibility in response to the varied demographic and high levels of disadvantage in the state. “If you experience disadvantage or disruption to education, it doesn’t mean you’re less suited to tertiary education, but the system we have in place in Tasmania to gain TCE and ATAR is so rigid”, he said.