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You are reading: The ‘truth’ about ATARs

Written by Marcia Devlin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality), Federation University Australia

In his poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, Lewis Carroll points out that if you repeat something often enough, it can become ‘the truth’.

‘Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried,

As he landed his crew with care;

Supporting each man on top of the tide

By a finger entwined in his hair.

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:

That alone should encourage the crew.

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:

What I tell you three times is true.’

I wonder whether some media commentators and politicians have a copy of this poem next to their beds. It is possible that this poem is where they got the idea to repeat statements and assumptions related to a connection between low Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores and lower university education standards over and over again until they become accepted, unquestioned knowledge.

In any case, by endlessly repeating such assumptions, what is being exhibited is what former University of Queensland Professor of Education, Eileen Byrne, defined as the Snark Syndrome.

The Snark Syndrome is the repeated assertion of an alleged truth that proves to have no credible base in sound empirical research or accredited theory. In simple terms, something is repeated again and again until it is accepted as fact, or as what Byrne calls ‘received wisdom’.

There is no evidence that low ATAR scores inexorably lead to lower standards or poorer university academic outcomes. There is no proof that excluding students with lower ATARs from university programs will raise standards or improve outcomes. The ‘received wisdom’ that high ATARs for everyone will ‘save the day’ is based on assumption, belief and prejudice, and not on evidence or fact.

The evidence and facts do indicate that ATAR scores are correlated with socioeconomic status and social capital. Poor people in rural areas generally have lower ATARs than rich people from metropolitan areas. But poor people are not stupid and do not compromise educational standards or outcomes. They just have less of the social and cultural capital that counts for school education outcomes (and ATARs).

Does repeating ‘low ATARs means low university standards’ often enough justify the inherent, implicit criticism and demonising of students who do not get high ATARs? No matter how hard they or their teachers work, no more than ten per cent of students’ scores will be in the top ten per cent of scores. That’s how ranking works. However much we might wish it, not everyone can have a high ATAR.

University education is now open to more students than in the past when it was just available to white, upper-class men. This is good for students, their futures, their families, the economy and society. So why do we metaphorically beat up the students who have responded to this opportunity to improve their minds and lives, and the universities who offer them the opportunity to do so?

As far as I am aware, and as Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education has recently emphasised, the point of university education is not to validate entry standards but to educate, value-add and ensure high quality outcome standards. So why is there a focus on repeating negative assumptions and inferences about low entry standards, the universities that set them and the people who meet them?

We all know that elements of effective university education and high quality learning outcomes go far beyond the supposed standard at which the students enter the university. Teaching quality, the curriculum, learning support and student support are just some of the most obvious. Yet some continue to be obsessed with entry standards.

When a university graduate seeks employment, how many employers will ask ‘What was your ATAR all those years ago?’ And how many will be interested in what the graduate knows, can do, and can contribute? And yet, the obsession with ATARs remains.

In the context of looming federal policy changes for higher education, simplistic ideas can be seductive. They bring us together and unite us against a perceived common evil. But if we hear them often enough, and they fit with our assumptions, beliefs and prejudices, we may find ourselves uncritically nodding along, muttering about the beginning of the end of civilisation being brought about by low ATAR university entry scores.

In the longer term, simplistic ideas are likely to distract us from evidence-based policy and practice and getting on with the important work of ensuring the highest quality graduate outcomes possible for all students. Surely this should be our focus, rather than Snark-based nonsense?


Photo credit: bibiphoto /