My Year 12 students are just starting preparations for a debate on the nice and juicy topic: That we should abolish the ATAR system of university entrance. They of course, had many personal reasons as why to they might want to fight for a way out of a what is currently quite a gruelling year of study. Maybe it was this increased focus that meant that two things that I read this week caught my eye…

The first was a blog written by a fellow Teach For Australia Alum, Daniel Hanrahan, entitled ‘What education can learn from childbirth’, in which he argued that we should have some kind of multifaceted score for measuring the educational outcomes of students.

The second was a report from the Mitchell Institute that was released this week, ‘Preparing Young People for the Future of Work’, which takes a look at the disparity between what skills we know our young people will need in the future and what they’re learning at school.

Both of these (plus my diligent debate coaching) got me thinking about the way that measures like ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks) incentivise and end up forming the back bone of our education system.

I’ll admit, I’m the kind of person who likes reading documents like the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians (agreed upon by all Australian governments in 2008) and taking a look at the big lofty goals that the education system as a whole has for itself. For us we want a system that promotes ‘equity and excellence’ and for ‘all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, active and informed citizens’. The problem, unfortunately, is that we don’t have a system that really measures whether or not we’ve been successful in achieving this.

So to with the National Curriculum, which has ambitious goals that extend beyond subject specificity and require students to show general capabilities like personal and social capability. These don’t get attention and, if I’m honest, are pretty hard to strategically think about packing into what is generally a pretty busy curriculum. Moreover, reporting on these kinds of standards are different depending on where you teach in Australia.

So what do we end up measuring and how does that impact on what we end up doing?

One of my favourite quotes from the Mitchell Institute report was the following:

“Without these broader measures of educational achievement, the useful but narrow NAPLAN and ATAR measures are given disproportionate weight and, in a case of the tail wagging the dog, are driving the priorities of teachers, school leaders and education departments.”

When a measure like the ATAR becomes the be-all-and-end-all of schooling, not only is it very stressful for students, but can also perversely incentivise schools and systems. Schools want to make their scores look better in order to attract future parents, so they may stream students out of a VCE ATAR scored pathway, which can severely limit their choices for after school study. At a broader level too, it means that instead of being focused on the skills that students need to develop for the future world of work they’re going to inhabit, schools are exam-focused.

I was surprised to read in the Mitchell Institute Report that there are measures that capture broader ‘cognitive, social and emotional dimensions of children’s development exist in the early years via the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC)’. As a high school teacher, I wasn’t aware that this was the case. Apparently this measures physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills and communication and general knowledge. Unfortunately though, these aspects aren’t measured past the earlier years of schooling.

Personally I am on board with the recommendation of the report that we need to ‘decentralise from one key outcome, the ATAR score, and instead develop and value the full range of capabilities young people require for a successful future’. I am, of course, wondering what kind of policy levers work and in what order to change this course.

Maybe I’ll have to get my Year 12 debaters onto solving this one for us.