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ATAR Explained
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By Steve Uscinski, Deputy Headmaster Teaching and Learning

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Check out the ATAR Explained BGS podcast episode with BGS Deputy Headmaster of Teaching and Learning Mr Steve Uscinski. 

There is an old sports coaches’ maxim about the most important advice to give to young players:

Focus on the process and not the outcome.

This truism applies equally to education, and particularly so to the final years of school where students work towards senior certification and tertiary entrance.

In Queensland, all students spend Years 11 and 12 studying for a Queensland Certificate of Education (QCE) and an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). Like me, many of you will have experience of the previous versions of senior (such as OP and TE) but QCE-ATAR, introduced in 2020, varies in significant ways and understanding the basics of the system is essential to maximising success. I will explain the ATAR in due course, but first we need to appreciate the significance of the QCE.

I am unreservedly a strong advocate for the new QCE as it provides all students with a clear and transparent set of expectations while giving teachers greater clarity about marking standards. Reassuringly, relative to previous systems, the volume of assessment has been dramatically reduced and the quality control processes significantly enhanced. The consequence is improved alignment and consistency across subjects and assessment statewide so that students, parents and educators can be confident that marks are fairly awarded to all students in all schools.

The QCE involves students in Year 10 selecting six subjects to study in senior. Each of these subjects is studied for two years via four sequential units. Units 3 and 4 are summative and are assessed by a combination of three internal assessments (IAs) and one external assessment (EA) in each subject. At the end of Year 12, students are awarded a QCE that lists a score out of 100 for each subject.

Our advice to students in Year 10 is consistent:

1.       Choose subjects that you enjoy and find fulfilling.

2.       Meet prerequisites for tertiary courses of interest.

3.       Create a balanced course of study.

Senior can be a challenging two years, and this advice enables students to prioritise the process of learning and to find satisfaction and joy in their education while providing options for the future.  

These two years of study in senior are where the focus on process is so important and where real gains can be made. Working with their teachers, students can identify areas for improvement and, with the application of targeted feedback and good study habits, achieve the best possible outcome in each of their subjects. It is here that, I believe, the BGS advantage is most evident: a shared culture of learning where thinking is made visible and where continuous improvement is made possible enables each student to achieve his personal best. 

Simply put, if a student can demonstrate the top standard in an assessment then they can achieve the top mark; there is no limit on or fixed distribution of results. I can say with certainty that the aim of every teacher at BGS is to enable every student to achieve the highest score possible in each subject and that our excellent results year to year reflect this.

So, having maximised their individual QCE subject scores, how does a student then apply and gain entry to university? This is the point at which the ATAR emerges. I want to emphasise that the ATAR only becomes relevant at the very end of senior and only after the QCE has been completed.    

Because there are hundreds of different combinations of subjects undertaken by thousands of Queensland students each year, universities require a reliable method for determining entry to courses. This involves putting all eligible school leavers onto a single rank, called the ATAR. A student’s best five subjects (based on QCE scores out of 100) are used to calculate their rank.

I suspect that this is the part where some misunderstanding or confusion enters the popular discourse. In order to put every student in the state on a single academic rank, different combinations of subjects need to be sorted and adjusted by relative difficulty, a process called scaling.

In simple terms, the relative degree of challenge involved in each subject can be determined by looking at which students across the state take a particular subject and then measuring how they have performed across all of their subjects. I like to describe it as an annual ‘academic index’. Having measured overall cohort performance for each subject, results are then scaled (that is, adjusted up or down) and aggregated for each student.

Every student in the state is then placed on a single rank using their best aggregated scaled scores. This single rank is then divided into bands of about thirty or so students. The top band is 99.95, the next is 99.90 and so on in decrements of .05 until all students in the state are ranked.

The allocation of ATARs is a strictly mathematical process and it's very robust. I think there might be misconceptions about the fairness of it, but it's simply a series of consistent statistical procedures. It’s also important to remember that the ATAR is really only the start of a university experience and that many pathways and options open up.  

I think people understanding the separation of the two processes – QCE and ATAR - is essential to success in this system of education.

The QCE is a two-year journey of immersion in learning and ongoing improvement.

The ATAR is a one-off rank allocated after the journey is complete.

My message to our students is a simple one: control the things over which you have control. You have control over your study habits, your attitude and openness to feedback, your wellbeing and nutrition, your use of time each day, and your engagement in lessons. What you can’t control is how the rest of the state might be achieving in their subjects and how they might be ranked in one or two years time.

The QCE delimits the process of learning, while the ATAR is a point-in-time outcome.

Focus on the process and not the outcome.

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