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‘Let’s Talk ATAR and our Senior Students’ with Mr Gary Davis, Head of Senior School

Flinders-senior-students

The Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking (ATAR) has been receiving almost as much air time as the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in the popular media of late.

In his Principal’s Message a fortnight ago (Term 3, Week 6), Flinders Principal Mr Stuart Meade referred to a recent piece by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, which focussed on the use of the ATAR by Australia’s universities as their primary tool for determining “worthiness” for a student entering their institution, faculty and course.

At its most basic, this is the function of the ATAR: a system designed to rank Year 12 students, following 13 years of education, for their progression to tertiary education and the degree of their choice.

The ATAR allows universities, via their various privately-funded admissions centres, to ‘award’ places in courses to those who choose (via their application) and have the highest ATARs amongst the group, until the quota of students for the course is filled.

It follows then that a course with an ATAR cut-off of 94 is no more cognitively challenging than a course with a cut-off of 84. The differences between the levels of ‘achievement’ come about because of the popularity of the course, the number of applicants and the places to be filled by the university.

The Secondary School, ATAR, Tertiary Studies Interface has received a great deal of examination in the southern states for the past 18 months or so, with reviews of student admissions to universities showing a decline in those enrolling with an ATAR. The figures reveal more students beginning their studies later in life (mature-age entry), enrolling in universities after successfully completing further studies beyond school, and a declining number of students accessing university directly from Year 12.

Here in Queensland, as a result of the report by Gabrielle Matters and Geoff Masters commissioned by the State Government in 2014, in less than two months we enter what Mr Meade referred to as the ‘brave new world’ when the summative phase of the new Senior Assessment and Tertiary Entrance process begins.

Queensland students and families are familiar with previous tertiary admissions rankings like the TE score and OP system, but may not be as aware that there has always existed a system of converting OPs to ATARs. So, in essence, this could be seen as a less brave and even less new world we enter.

The far bigger changes are in the calculation of the ATAR figure, the dismantling of the Queensland Core Skills test, and its scaling factors that attempted to find a level playing field for students in different subjects, with different cohorts in different sectors and enrolled at different schools.

The previous QCE system had also tried to be all things to all people and had evolved to allow provisions for students on a VET pathway, combined VET and tertiary pathway, transition to employment and the tertiary entrance sphere.

The change of entrance score calculation, therefore, has not caused us the angst that some other schools and cohorts may have faced, however, individuals within any system are unique and face their own challenges no matter the system.

It has been no secret that Matthew Flinders Anglican College has for some time focussed on preparing the vast majority (98% at times) of our graduates for tertiary education. Using the previous system to enhance the opportunities for their students has been every school’s purpose.

For Flinders, that has meant preparing seniors for their very best in QCS and providing demanding internal assessments in order to determine a ranking within each subject.

We have altered our focus to preparing students to do their very best on three Internal assessment pieces, that provide them with the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of cognitions shared by all students in Queensland; and working collaboratively to prepare for the unknown that will be the External assessment in each subject.

Preparing young Flinderians for their brightest future is always our principle aim. Whether it be TE, OP or ATAR, our approach has been, and always will be, to warmly demand the very best from our students; that working collaboratively brings out the best from all concerned; and that any pressures a student feels are rationalised, harnessed and diminished in order for them to perform at their optimum.

I mentioned earlier in this piece that the ATAR is a measure of selection for tertiary entrance. For some, it also becomes a measure of their value or worth. For those competitive souls amongst us, that measure can act as an extrinsic motivation as we strive to be the best we can be. For others, it becomes another pressure that creates anxiety.

The comfort in the known Mr Meade mentioned, or as I like to think of it, “new light, through old windows”, supports his urgings to follow sensible advice when it comes to choosing subjects in Years 9, 10, 11 or even university, indeed to many aspects of the ‘Brave New World’.

This light should extend to the concerns faced by many of our students, parents, families and society at large. Anxiety continues to influence many. Those who have certain ideas about their future, those with few or any, and many in between.

We make a conscious effort to not speak directly about stress, pressure or demands with our senior students when we meet as a group.

We support students with adjustments where we are able.

We listen to their concerns and work with families to mitigate the influence of these upon their progress.

The new QCE has rationalised assessment in the senior phase of learning to four pieces across each of the two formative and then again in the two summative units that follow. We know that this decrease in assessment load can be seen as both advantageous and challenging!

But, ultimately, the greatest contributor to an individual’s wellbeing is the individual.

Whilst some may be fearful of the unknown that the new QCE brings – concerned that their efforts won’t be rewarded, or that a slip up here and there may have a significant effect on their future – the truth is that not much has changed.

The new light that shines through the old windows of senior schooling does little to alter the notion that the better prepared we are, the harder we work, the more engaged we are with the work in class and our teachers’ support then the better we will be rewarded with grades that reflect our true capabilities.

Support from our colleagues, friends, family and school go a long way towards reaching this potential.

Yes, the system may have changed, but the age-old wisdom remains…

“The harder I work, the luckier I get…”

All the best to those finishing the final QCS tests, and to those beginning the first of the Unit 1 and 2 examinations.


Gary Davis | Head of Senior School

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