ATAR Assessments - Do the States and Territories Have it Right or are They Pushing Overworked Teachers to the Brink?

20 June 2019

A recent article in The West Australian raised a number of issues that seem to be gathering interest across the country.

According to the article, Peter Bothe, the Principal of Sacred Heart College (WA) expressed his concern that many students were opting to drop sport or music because they were struggling with the demands of their academic workload. He was quoted as saying, “students taking five ATAR subjects had to complete between six and 12 assessment tasks for each course — or up to 60 a year — in addition to end-of-year exams.” This matter is not limited to Western Australian schools. The issue of student workload has been raised in several media articles linking it to high stress that is experienced by many students in their final years of schooling.

The Conversation referred to Year 12 as a “high stress marathon” and noted that “a survey of Year 12 students from a range of schools in Sydney did not paint a happy picture of life for the students. Of the 722 students surveyed, 42% registered high-level anxiety symptoms, high enough to be of clinical concern. This proportion is nearly double the population norm.”

According to the article in The West Australian, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) last year capped school-based formal assessment tasks for each course to a maximum of three in Year 11 and four in Year 12, while Queensland’s Curriculum and Assessment Authority will require four per year.

If we assume that the average student will take on a load of five ATAR subjects, this equates to fifteen assessments for Year 11s and 20 for Year 12s in New South Wales and 20 in each year for Queensland students. This is quite different to the 30 to 60 tasks that may have to be completed by students, and assessed by their teachers, in Western Australia.

It was also noted in The West Australian article that Western Australian Year 11 and 12 teachers, who are currently weighed down with enormous marking loads, would welcome a reduction in the number of compulsory assessment pieces required.

But What is the Real Purpose of the Assessment of Students?

The question that one could ask is, “what type and how many assessment pieces does it take for a professional, qualified teacher to be able to make a clear judgment about a student’s understanding of a concept or component of a course and then give them an alpha-numeric grade?”

In my own school years, there were always jokes among the students that the teachers would weigh our papers and give us grades on the basis of the bulk rather than the content. This was, of course, a child’s perspective of the actual rigour that teachers put into the assessment of each item submitted by each student. When I became a teacher and started teaching classes of 40+ students, the whole notion of assessment and the actual time that it took to mark a student’s work, to go through moderation with colleagues, then return and validate the assessment with each student and then find time to review if my teaching practices needed to improve, ensured that the assessment of students became a very real and somewhat daunting prospect.

Amy Reilly an assessment expert at Pearson LearnEd (a global leader in educational assessment) in her article 4 Common Types of Tests Teachers Give (and Why) states: “[a]s a former teacher and self-proclaimed assessment nerd, the word “testing” can raise my heart rate. It immediately brings to mind passing or failing, when what we’re really trying to do as educators is learn—learn what students know so we can celebrate that while also learning (we can find) where they need extra support.”

According to Reilly, there are four types of testing in schools today that each serve distinct purposes and should work together in order to make up a comprehensive or balanced assessment program:

  1. Diagnostic Testing: This testing is used to “diagnose” what skills a student has demonstrated proficiency on.
  2. Formative Assessments: Formative assessment is often viewed as more of a natural part of the teaching and learning process and includes strategies such as observations as well as the use of different types of tools, like digital games.
  3. Benchmark or Interim Testing: This testing is used throughout the school year often to check whether students have mastered a unit of instruction.
  4. Summative Assessments: Summative assessments are used as a checkpoint at the end of the year or course to assess how much content students learned overall.

If you type in “what is the purpose of student assessment?” into Google, you will get dozens of web-based resources and sources of definitions or debate. However, according to the Ministry of Education New Zealand, “[t]he primary purpose of assessment is to improve students’ learning and teachers’ teaching as both respond to the information it provides. Assessment for learning is an ongoing process that arises out of the interaction between teaching and learning. What makes assessment for learning effective is how well the information is used.”

What a wonderful definition that brings both the improvement of learning and the improvement of teaching together in a clear and simple statement!

So, if we use this definition as a base, teachers assess students to improve student learning and to improve their own pedagogy. Therefore, if the assessment pieces are well constructed, designed as either diagnostic, benchmark, formative or summative and provide clear evidence that a student is understanding the required concepts of their course, why do there have to be so many assessments?

Let’s Do the Maths…

A recent article in The Conversation reported that public school teachers are working an average of 54 hours per week (43 hours at school and 11 hours at home) due to the increasing administrative demands on them to meet compliance standards. In this timeframe, their main role, apart from caring for their charges, is to plan, teach and assess all their students.

In Western Australia, if a teacher has three ‘ATAR classes’ at Year 11 or Year 12 level, they could be required to mark up to 12 individual assessment pieces as well as two formal examinations for each class per year. This means that over a 36 to 40 week academic year, the teachers would mark an average of more than one assessment piece per student per week.

Assuming that teachers have 20 students in each ATAR class (60 students) and then also have two other classes of 30 students (60 students), the numbers become quite mind boggling. Teachers could be marking between 60 and 120 individual pieces of student work every week with anywhere between 15 minutes and one hour per piece of work - and mostly outside of school hours.

Please don’t tell me that teachers get all of the school holidays because of this. Teachers have four weeks of annual leave, just like everyone else. They then have approximately eight weeks of non-contact time where they usually spend a good proportion of that time (during the year) catching up on marking assessments, programming for the next term and, believe it or not, catching up on sleep.

Getting it Right

So, let’s hope that the other curriculum authorities get it right – like New South Wales and Queensland- to encourage students to take on a more balanced and holistic approach to their final two years of compulsory schooling and to ensure that we do not drive our teachers away from their vocation because we just keep adding more and more to their workload.

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.