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Sunday, 23 December 2012

ATAR fever

The NSW Secondary School final exam (HSC) results came out yesterday, and the related university entry ranking scores (ATAR) came out this morning. As my oldest son (DS1) is only in the first year of high school (Yr 7) the hoop-la surrounding the release of results seems rather amusing. [It may not seem so funny in five years time when DS1 will be getting his results.] It was nice to see that the selective high school DS1 attends has moved up the 'rankings' and is now well within the 'top 10' schools in the state. As it now consistently ranks higher than Sydney Grammar I'm glad we eventually decided not to send DS1 there.

A lot of the media commentary about the "stress" surrounding the HSC exams, ATAR results are so forth seems like a beat-up to me. After all, the UAC says 17 per cent of students will receive an ATAR of 90 or above, 33.5 per cent will get at least 80, 49.3 per cent at least 70, and 63.8 per cent at least 60.00. There are many uni courses you can get into with an ATAR of 65 (eg. the University of Western Sydney has a long list of courses with an ATAR cut-off of 65 for 2013, and some diploma course have an ATAR cut-off of 50!), and although some courses that are in high demand have ATAR cut-offs in the high 90s, there are many 'good' degree courses accessible to most of the students who received an ATAR score. For example, the cut-off ATAR for the Lineral Arts and Science course at Sydney Uni was 70.05 in 2012, which means around half the students getting ATAR results today would qualify for this course. I suspect a lot of the angst is caused by students 'picking' a course (or courses) with a high ATAR requirement for entry, knowing that they don't have much chance of achieving the required ATAR score. Selecting a range of possible courses, including some that would be interesting to do but have a lower ATAR cut-off, would greatly reduce stress-levels. It is much more fun waiting for an exam result knowing that you are highly likely to get into an interesting course, and just waiting to see which particular course(s) you qualify for.

It may seem odd that 17% of students qualifying for an ATAR score got a "ranking" in the "top 10%" (ie. 90 or above), but that is simply due to the way the ATAR is calculated (basically it works out a student's ranking compared to ALL the students that were in school at the end of Year 10 (the old 'school leaving certificate' age), and the lowest ATAR scores (if they were issued) would belong to students who dropped out during years 11 and 12, and those that did vocational courses that don't count towards an HSC mark. A lot of the students that now continue in secondary school until Year 12 are those that in times past would have left high school at the end of Year 10 to start working or commence an apprenticeship.

These days around 30% of young people go on to tertiary study, whereas "in my day" (the early 80s) less than 10% went on to university studies. So, despite the media beat-up, it would seem that there should be less stress surrounding the HSC these days, as a much higher proportion of students will go on the university (unless, of course, students that have no realistic chance of getting in to uni via their ATAR results have been conditioned to believe that unless they get into uni they have 'failed').

One consequence of the large numbers of students now proceeding on to university studies appears to be that the 'value' of a bachelors degree has been eroded. These days a basic university degree is often viewed as routine, and to stand out in your field you need to have also done some post-grad studies (at least a post-grad diploma, or better yet a Masters).

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