The VCE results and the ATAR system can be confusing. This article is designed to demystify the statistics and provide insights into why the ATAR exists, how it is calculated, and how important it is in defining how well your school has done.
What is the language used?
There are several key pieces of information that you might hear about during this time of the year that can be confusing. The main one is the ATAR.
The ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) is a standardised ranking system used across Australia, to assess and compare the academic performance of high school students.
The ATAR is calculated based on a student’s performance in their final two years of high school. In Victoria, this is typically through VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) or an equivalent program such as the IB (International Baccalaureate).
The ATAR is calculated using a complex mathematical formula. There are several terms that are relevant to the calculation that are helpful to understand.
- Raw Study Scores: A student’s study score for each of their VCE subjects is used to calculate the ATAR. These scores range from 0 to 50, with 50 being the highest possible score, but it is not a score out of 50. The raw study score is a ranking of the student’s performance relative to all other students who did that same subject. The grades received on School Assessed Coursework (SACs) and the final exam are used to determine the raw study score.
- Scaling: Study scores are then scaled to account for variations in difficulty between subjects. Scaling ensures that a high score in what is considered a more challenging subject (e.g., Specialist Mathematics) is equivalent to a high score in what is considered a less challenging one (e.g., Further Mathematics). Scaling is determined by statistical analysis and may change from year to year.
- Statistical Data: Statistical data from the entire cohort is used to determine where a student’s aggregate scaled score ranks in relation to other students. The objective is to create an equal distribution curve.
- Calculation: The ATAR is a number between 0 and 99.95, it is made up of the scaled study scores from your top four scoring subjects (including at least one English subject), plus 10% of the scores from your fifth and sixth subjects. Once the scores are added together, they from an aggregate, which is converted into your ATAR.
The specific formula and data used can vary slightly from year to year and is determined by the relevant state or territory authority. To understand the way this works, watch this video from The Age.
Why do universities use the ATAR?
Universities in Australia use the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) as a key tool in their admission process for several important reasons:
- Fair Comparison: The ATAR provides a fair and standardised system to compare the academic achievements of high school students. It takes into account their performance in their final two years of high school, and is deemed a critical factor in determining their readiness for university-level studies.
- Admission Ranking: Universities receive a large number of applications for their courses, and the ATAR helps them rank applicants. It allows universities to select the best-qualified students for their programs based on their academic performance.
- Course Prerequisites: Many university courses have minimum ATAR requirements. Students who meet or exceed these requirements are more likely to be admitted. This ensures that students entering these programs have a strong foundation in the required subjects.
- Selection for Competitive Courses: Some university courses, particularly those in high demand or with limited spaces, have very high ATAR entry requirements. The ATAR helps universities make distinctions among applicants when many students are vying for a limited number of seats.
- Transparency: The ATAR system provides a common benchmark for admission. It simplifies the admissions process for everyone involved in the process.
- Equity: The ATAR system strives to be fair and equitable by considering students’ academic performance in a standardised way, regardless of their background or location. This promotes equal opportunities for all students to access higher education.
In summary, universities use the ATAR to streamline their admissions process, select the most qualified students, and ensure that applicants meet the academic requirements for their chosen courses. It’s a widely accepted and transparent tool that plays a crucial role in higher education in Australia. Universities might also make some early offers for some courses. It’s important to note that early offers are usually conditional, meaning that students must still meet the academic requirements specified by the university in their VCE results.
Other factors to consider when looking at school results.
When looking at school performances, many factors should be taken into consideration. Some of the things you may want to review are included below:
- Median Study Score: The median study score of a School is a statistical measure that represents the middle value of a set of study scores obtained by students in a particular subject or across multiple subjects. Unlike the mean (average) study score, which can be influenced by extreme scores, the median is the score that separates the higher half from the lower half of the distribution. So basically, it is the mid-point based on the size of the class and the distribution of their results.
- School population: The size of the school can impact the number of subjects that are offered, as well as class sizes. Smaller schools can tend to perform better as the teacher to student ratio can be a key factor in the level of support each individual student can access.
- Course offering (range of subjects): Some schools specialise in the VCE while others offer a combination of VCE and IB. The VCE fosters critical thinking, problem-solving, and independent learning skills, empowering students to adapt to the demands of higher education and professional environments. Additionally, the VCE allows for specialisation in a range of subjects, enabling students to pursue their interests and strengths across a broad range of subject areas. The IB originated in the 1960s in response to a growing need for a globally recognised and standardised education system that transcended national borders. Over the years, the IB has evolved into a holistic educational framework that emphasises critical thinking, intercultural understanding, and a well-rounded education.
- Strengths (e.g., the subjects that students have done well in): Some schools define themselves over time as being specialists in certain areas of the curriculum, while others demonstrate consistently that they have high levels of excellence across a broad range of subjects each year. The interests of students can be seen in the areas where students achieve high study scores.
- Breadth of course offering (e.g., are students doing well in Mathematics as well as in the Arts?): Students often perform better when they can study in fields of higher interest and where they can see the relevance of their subjects to their chosen career or area of interest (e.g., Physical Education for students who are actively involved in sport).
- Areas of excellence (e.g., Sports, the Arts): Schools differ across their areas of focus or excellence, some schools are renown due to their focus on sport or the Arts. These co-curricular programs can differentiate a school in another area of excellence to academic performance defined by ATAR scores, or school rankings.
- Open or select entry: Some schools require students to be at a specific academic standard to gain entry into their school, which can skew favourably their academic performance into the higher levels compared to schools who accept students at different levels who may be strong in non-academic areas.
- Single-gender or co-educational: research indicates that girls perform better academically in single-gender schools over their counterparts in co-educational school.
- Scored vs Unscored VCE results: Some students opt to not have their work assessed. The difference between a scored and unscored VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) lies in how the final results are presented. When opting for unscored VCE, students do not receive numerical scores. Instead, their achievements are described using other methods, such as narrative feedback or grades like “pass” or “achieved”. They do not receive an ATAR and are hence not reflected in the statistics relating to VCE results reported in the media or through school websites. Therefore, you might see schools with a high percentage of unscored VCE students with a median ATAR not representing their whole cohort.
All these factors go into determining how a school’s VCE students have performed. Bearing in mind that individual performances impact the cohort’s results, the overall school performance varies from year to year. Some schools consistently perform well, this could be the result of school culture, the calibre of the faculty, student wellbeing and support frameworks or the subjects offered, type and location of the school.