Stressful, narrowly focused and, for many, a bit pointless: Is it time to rethink year 12 exams?
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Imagine standing at the starting line of a race alongside tens of thousands of other people. Everyone has trained in slightly different events, but they'll still be ranked against each other at the finish line.
For the past 13 years, the participants have been in a marathon; but over about four weeks, it becomes a sprint that many have come to believe matters above all else.
It's a daunting prospect, but this is precisely what Australian students faced as they sat down for their first year 12 exams last month.
Recently, however, more and more students have been slowing down during the race; they're still competing, but doing the academic equivalent of power-walking the track.
That's because a growing number of students are being offered university places regardless of their ATAR and often before exams even begin.
The ATAR — a four-digit number between 0 and 99.95 that ranks student performance against that of their peers — has long been seen as the ultimate marker of high academic achievement.
But in recent years, its symbolism appears to have dwarfed its relevance with fewer students relying on it for entry into university.
In New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, the number of students applying for early offers through the University Admissions Centre has doubled since 2017. Direct early offers from universities, issued before the completion of exams, are also on the rise. 
Some experts say this shift — which gathered steam in the wake of the pandemic-induced disruptions to schooling — has created a fractured education system in which the ATAR no longer serves its purpose of standardising admission. 
While this means greater flexibility for some students, especially those that struggle under traditional exam conditions, some warn it goes hand-in-hand with reduced transparency about how it all works.
During two years of school closures, home learning, and lockdown anxiety, questions about how to reduce the pressure on students in their final years of school once again bubbled to the surface.
In response, many universities expanded their direct early offer schemes — downgrading the importance of final exams and locking in skilled students along the way.
For example, Western Sydney University offered 15,000 early offer places in 2020, more than double the number offered in the previous year. This year, more than 11,200 early offers have already gone out. 
As part of their "True Reward Early Offer" program, the university takes year 11 or 12 results as evidence of achievement rather than the ATAR on the condition applicants complete their HSC certificate, releasing offers to prospective students as early as August. 
But this shift away from ATAR as the be-all and end-all was already underway long before the pandemic. A 2018 study by the Mitchell Institute found that in 2016 only one in four domestic undergraduate students was admitted to university courses on the basis of their ATAR.
However it's important to note that only a minority of the students captured by this data were year 12 school leavers. In 2021, for example, year 12 students made up 35 per cent of total undergraduate university admissions, according to the federal education department.
Yet the figures underscore the variety of other, non-ATAR pathways on offer to anyone wanting a university education.
These include VET award courses, mature age special entry provisions, higher education courses, professional qualifications and secondary education without an ATAR.
This recent expansion of early offer schemes, however, has prompted more students to question the ATAR's supremacy. 
"I don't see the [ATAR] process benefiting a lot of students who have different ideas in mind," says Jake Hansen, an HSC student from the NSW South Coast. 
"It diverts students away from exploring their potential in other areas, because the system, I believe, is designed to send you into pathways that are kind of less creative.
"If you took someone who chose heaps of artsy subjects, like drama, music, visual arts, and you scaled it against someone who did maths, biology, chemistry … the scaling is horrific."
While the 18-year-old has opted for an ATAR, which he will receive next month, he views it only as a backup.
Jake plans to take a gap year before applying to the Australian Institute of Music in Melbourne, which uses portfolios and auditions in its admissions process. It also requires applicants have completed their year 12 certificate. 
"From the get-go, I wasn't stressing myself out with study because I know at the end, I don't need the marks, all I need is the HSC certificate," he says. 
"It makes everything feel like quite a big drag. This big, long three weeks of just sitting through exams — and balancing that against [part-time] work can be quite difficult as well."
This year, in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, 24,417 students applied for early offers through the University Admission Centre's School Recommendation Scheme. This is slightly down from the record 25,477 applications received last year.
In 2021, more than 20,500 of these early applications resulted in offers. 
Under the scheme, offers are not made until the completion of exams on November 11 and rely on year 11 results and letters of recommendation from schools as opposed to a student's ATAR.
Many universities also have their own early entry programs, with thousands of students receiving offers before ever sitting down for an exam. These differ across institutions and typically rely on a combination of year 11 results, personal statements, portfolios and the completion of year 12.
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One student from a public school in Sydney's inner west, who did not wish to use her name, told ABC News she received three early offers — at Macquarie University, the Australian National University and the University of Technology Sydney — before ever setting foot in an exam room.
Two of the offers are unconditional, meaning she's in regardless of how she performs. 
"Even though people say the HSC is not the end, it's not your only option, it's much easier to believe that now," she says.
"It seems there's kind of a divide between students who are still pursuing a really high ATAR and those that have kind of dropped off a bit, myself included."
For many schools, this is a big problem. Chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, says he's hearing from teachers that once students have an offer, "that's basically the end of the year for them".
"I understand why it happens because universities are competing for the best students they can get," he says. "But I think there's a need for universities to take a look at how their behaviour is impacting learning in the school system."
But others argue the shift is a net positive for students, both in reducing stress and anxiety and allowing those who don't excel in traditional exam conditions to succeed. This goes to the heart of what many say is a problem in Australia's education system: an overemphasis on scholastic achievement that leaves out students with diverse skills and different ways of learning. 
"We recognise that students are more than just the ATAR," University of Western Sydney's Angelo Kourtis told ABC News last year.
"What these programs do is actually challenge the primacy of the end of year 12 exams or the ATAR."
Enterprise Professor Sandra Milligan is the director of the University of Melbourne's Assessment Research Centre. She believes it's time for a complete rethink of how we measure student achievement.
"It's broken," she says. "Students who still need an ATAR because they're going into a competitive course are increasingly in the minority, and so what's happening is there is no transparency, equity, or understanding about how you get into university these days."
For decades all states and territories other than Queensland have used a ranking system like the ATAR to facilitate school-leaver university admissions. (You may remember waiting patiently for your UAI, TER or ENTER rank in the mail.)
Between 2009 and 2010, nearly all states and territories moved to the ATAR in an effort to standardise the system. Queensland was the final state to join in 2018.
Part of the appeal was it provided a more transparent way for universities to compare students that studied different subjects, at a range of schools, across multiple states and territories.
"It was the best we could do at the time," Milligan says, but now "the whole system is fragmenting".
"Different unis have different ways in, different schools have different connections with different unis, and it's no longer a fair or transparent system, which is my main concern."
Some experts, however, believe the ATAR still achieves its core aims: namely that it's broadly fair and convenient for universities and students alike. 
Andrew Norton, a professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Australian National University, is among them.
"There's this view that you can't get into courses because your ATAR is too low, when really, you can't get into courses because demand exceeds supply. So there has to be some way of deciding among the applicants who is going to get in," he says.
"And that's where I get concerned, that just by piling on new kinds of admission methods we end up with a system which is more confusing, more time consuming, more expensive to run, but possibly gets to pretty much the same results as we had before."
Where there are inequities in the system — according to data from UAC57 per cent of students with an ATAR of 90 or higher came from the highest socio-economic quartile in 2017 — Norton points to a range of schemes aimed at levelling the playing field.
These include bonus points, which boost a student's selection rank for a particular course, and special Educational Access Schemes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But, Norton adds, "the ATAR is only really serving students who want to go to university and the universities themselves" and notably not students who plan on pursuing employment or further education outside of the university system. 
The other issue often raised by experts is the exams themselves, both the skills they measure — or more commonly don't — and the pressure they place on students. It's this issue that Milligan is working to address. 
"The measures of academic or scholastic attainment, which is what examinations are, are not sufficient to set people up to thrive in their future lives," she says. 
"Many people who are good at exams might not make the best doctors, childcare workers or plumbers, and those who aren't good at exams may make great doctors and nurses.
"We're only getting half the story and we need to balance things up a bit."
While end-of-school exams are commonly used throughout the world, the ATAR system is relatively unique to Australia.
"I don't know of any country that constructs something exactly like ATAR as the basis for selecting applicants for university admission," says Geoff Masters, from the Australian Council for Educational Research.
Some countries look only at performance in a small handful of subjects. Others — like the United States — have separate tests for university admission, and many also rely on interviews and portfolios of achievements.
But according to Masters, there's been little research comparing the outcomes of these processes.
"What we do know is the current selection processes, including ATAR, have quite a significant impact on the kind of learning that occurs particularly in the final years of school," he says.
"Many of the good things that schools do in the early years are put on hold while students are very focused on exam preparation … and ATAR looms over this whole activity."
He's referring to skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, creative thinking, team collaboration, and working with digital technology — exactly the types of skills Milligan would like to see valued more highly during the assessment process.
Part of the Assessment Research Centre's role is working with schools eager to find ways to assess students on more than their academic skills. 
"It's about who are you, what are you good at, how can we represent this and how can we do it fairly, systematically, comparably from school to school," Milligan says.
"It's a challenge for schools, because things like communication, collaboration, citizenship, you can't assess them using an examination or a test — you've got to have what we call performance-based assessment, that is, students actually doing things in an authentic way."
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As an example, she points to the Big Picture Education Australia program — a non-ATAR pathway to university that encourages students to develop a portfolio based on their areas of interest.
This year about 400 year 11 and 12 students are enrolled in the course across 28 schools. Upon competition, students receive a credential currently recognised by Australian 17 universities. 
"In Australia, we're a rich country, we should be able to put in place a system that enables every kid to show where they're strong, what they can do, and be able to use that to go where is best for them," Milligan says.
"And at the moment, we don't have that system; we've got an examination and an ATAR system."
Masters is among those that would like to see the ATAR scrapped. As an alternative, he believes universities could calculate their own internal rankings of students for competitive courses, but that this number should not be made public.
Instead of publishing ATAR cut-offs, he suggests universities could "simply tell students where they stand" by informing applicants of the number of available course places and where the individual student sits compared to the cohort who has applied. 
"All of this can be done and universities can achieve their purpose without making this rank, the ATAR, such a public feature of the schooling system," he says. "There are a lot of voices now pointing to the problems, so I do think it will change. How quickly it will change, I'm not sure."
In the meantime, Jake is simply passing time until the HSC is over. "It's a weird process because you're just waiting for it to end, I guess, so I can get on with other things in life, like my job, saving money for uni and moving away, things like that," he says.
But not everyone at his school is in the same boat. Some of his peers, he says, are still relying on their ATAR to go to university and "trying their best to get the best marks possible".
For them, it'll be an anxious wait until results are released in December.
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