The Parent’s Guide to ATARs
Nov 10, 2017

When Julie and Peter moved to Australia with their teenage daughters, understanding how the senior education system worked and more specifically the concept of ATARs, was a difficult one to fathom for the two new immigrants.

“We didn’t know where to begin and felt helpless because we had no guidance to offer our girls,” Peter said.

The struggle was one they shared with the thousands of local parents who were inundated with talk of scaling and cut-offs but with little guidance on how to navigate the most important year of their child’s schooling.

With the HSC turning 50 this year, it’s time to bust some myths about how the ATAR really works.

What is an ATAR?

The UAC website defines ATAR as:

“A number between 0.00 and 99.95 that indicates a student’s position relative to all the students who started high school with them in Year 7.”

Essentially, this means that if your child gets an ATAR of 90, they are ranked among the top 10 per cent of this cohort within their state.

This system operates in each Australian state and the ATAR your child gets in one state is equivalent to the same, should they move interstate in the future.

What is it based on?

In NSW, the calculation of this rank is based on your child’s best performing ten units. Barring English, which is compulsory, a student is free to choose whichever units they like for the remaining with some exceptions. For example, the requirement that they must complete at least four subjects.

How does scaling work?

The scaling element of the ATAR process is designed to even out the playing field. It acknowledges that not all subjects are equal in terms of their nature and level of difficulty and students shouldn’t be advantaged or disadvantaged based on the subjects they choose. Now to break it down. Each student has two sets of marks in year 12.

  1. School assessments

The assessments they complete in school will be used to determine the raw assessment mark which then determines your child’s rank within their school year group. Once your child’s year group sits the HSC, BOSTES will look at the school’s overall HSC performance to appropriately adjust its students’ assessment marks. For example, if the school does exceptionally well in its assessment marks due to a lenient marking system or easier assessments but performs not as well in the HSC exams, their raw assessment marks will be lowered. In this way, BOSTES can eliminate the discrepancies that arise across individual schools.

  1. HSC exams

A similar process occurs for a student’s raw HSC exam marks. To remove discrepancies between courses, the mark a student achieves in a particular subject is scaled by its level of difficulty. For example, it’s arguably a lot harder to achieve a raw score of 90 in the English Standard course than in the English Extension II course, as the latter is designed to be more advanced. The raw HSC marks are aggregated by BOSTES to reflect exactly this.

What does this mean for how my child should approach the HSC?

The HSC is going to be the most difficult year of school for your child, and above all it’s important to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of each student. If you are a NSW resident, take the above information into account when helping your child with the subject selection. While more advanced courses indeed come with attractive scaling prospects, they will be of no use if the student is unable to perform well in them. For parents in other states across Australia, seek out resources from your child’s school and UAC to understand how it works for you and how it will impact their future.