For anyone whose score does not reflect their light.
As I thumbed through a newspaper recently, the headline WA’s top ATAR: Meet State’s brightest and best with ‘perfect’ scores across the board sang out a few pages deep. There they were, smiling, our very best students according to the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). I felt a pang of affection for their sweet, beaming faces even as I rolled my eyes. Scanning the article, you discover there are at least three of them gunning for medicine. It’s likely a couple will be lawyers of some description. Others will turn up at the pointy end of some hefty mergers and acquisitions or in a lab curing heinous diseases. That sort of thing. Bright, indeed. But the absolute “best” to the exclusion of all others? No.
A long time ago, I took great pleasure in informing my irritated year ten maths teacher I wouldn’t be carrying on the subject in senior school despite intending to sit the Tertiary Entrance Exam (TEE), the dinosaur version of the ATAR exams of today. He despised us, the scholarship art students, resented our status at the school, and our disregard for his class. I admit we were rude, our boredom playing out in window gazing, notes passing and being generally disruptive. One of my disruption buddies was the 15-year-old Anya Brock. Realistically, I could just end this piece right there.
He scoffed at my suggestion that I’d be dropping maths in year eleven, a haughty scepticism all over his ruddy little face. “You can’t do that.” He was flustered, though. Technically, I was correct, provided I did one “List 2” TEE subject – in the maths and sciences branch – I could still be eligible for a ranking, a score against my peers. I told him I chose Human Biology, so running with a low-end D into the end of year ten maths was okay with me.
Why are we so fixated on torturous galloping towards a tertiary education at school? It baffles me. If you are one of the people, like me, who has crafted a successful path by working, networking and trial and error, you will probably agree that looking back, TEE / ATAR was the biggest waste of time in your entire school career, and we should have spent that time lining up early for pizza cheesies at the canteen. What is a tertiary admission exam? It’s a test of how well we perform in tests, weighted to reward the students who shine in what are classified as the most “difficult” subjects. But who determines that? It’s counter intuitive. If someone does well in a particular discipline, it’s not because they find it difficult. To the contrary, it’s because they have a natural gift in that area.
We should be coaching children and young adults to lean into their strengths, not battle against them to attain some academic status mark. It’s absurd. We are ranking students against each other based on a measurement that doesn’t consider individual interests, demographics, communication skills, interpersonal skills, kindness, compassion, learning styles, emotional intelligence, sensory and cognitive functions, I could go on… The ickiest part is that those who are advancing to university with their super high scores in, let’s face it, the same six subjects, are lifted on a pedestal and declared the winners in the state newspaper. Old mate who opts for a plumbing apprenticeship, eventually starts his own booming business, and employs 50 happy, local staff never gets a mention.
I killed year 12. By staying in my lane, English Literature, English, History, Art and Drama, I scored a Tertiary Entrance Ranking (percentile) of 98.2. Human Biology was my low point, of course, but it wasn’t enough to drag me down, my strategy took care of that. I won the subject exhibition for English, meaning I scored the highest mark in the state for that subject. I returned a perfect score for my Art History exam, and took out the top marks for my school in English and non-TEE Drama. So, what am I whinging about? Well, what if I’d just accepted what I was supposed to do, what virtually every other student in my graduating class attempted to do? What if I did struggle through and likely fail maths? Selected either English or Literature instead of both? I’d have bombed, there’s no question.
I took my super high score to UWA, Curtin and then a private film school, but I was more interested in eating out, smoking cigarettes and working – the money part and the social part. I dropped out again and took a full-time job in a famous Fremantle pizza restaurant. For the next ten years of my life I became a hospitality head, working my way up the ranks in the chaotic reality of post-classroom life. At every point in my career through hospitality and corporate worlds, I shifted my gaze slightly to the right or left before moving forward, and continued my trajectory in a way that felt attuned to my skills and interests. I talked to people. I made them laugh. I took risks. I called on them when I needed help.
I was riding on a wave of my hospitality nous, drawing on experiences in kitchens and bars and hotels where I honed my rapport with other humans, my resilience and tenacity. Now, twenty-three years post-graduation, I’m a freelance photographer and writer with more job satisfaction than is fair for one person. I go to the beach three nights a weeks and take photos. I have a fellowship to write a novel. I get paid to travel. It's bliss. None of it came from achieving my ridiculously good TER. Creative writing at university, for me, was mind numbing. I have never taken a photography lesson in my life. I got here through learning how to work hard and long hours, then how not to, how to adapt to different bosses and managers, to win over clients and customers, to haggle, to value beauty, to stick to my guns, to write a good response to a complaint, to look at the light, to change and evolve.
It pains me that there are some kids this week who feel sad, morbidly disappointed in their scores in an arbitrary exam that likely will have very limited bearing on their lives. There are future cultural icons, business leaders and CEOs in that pile, along with the athletes, creatives and some people who really should be heading to university, but just nosedive in test environments, or have neurodivergence factors at play when writing, reading, sitting in pressurised silence. I am sad some can’t see that future and balance it against the number they just received.
So, what’s my solution? It’s not to abolish the tertiary admission exams. Keep those for the kids who specifically want to go to university, the ones who live for measured situations, and have an innate leaning toward subjects that are weighted generously and scale in their favour. Let those who know what they want to pursue beyond high school sit the entrance exam. For everyone else, those barely 18-year-old fledglings, let them do it too, if they must, but just tell them the truth.
It doesn’t matter. It really, truly does not matter.
If you’re a young mind who learns better on the job, whose passions are outdoors, or on a sporting field, who is good with people, children or animals, who likes to paint and create and write stories, heal, counsel, act, sing, or any other activity we can’t measure objectively in a hall with a timer and a piece of paper, maybe take a year off. Get a job waiting tables for now. There’s often free pizza and fun people to go out with. Some of those people will know people who like your work, they might know investors, or potential customers, or someone who has the exact job you want. Keep asking, your ears open and your heart receptive to opportunities. Keep connecting, sharing, and practicing your craft. Back yourself. You are also the brightest and best, ATAR just wasn’t the way to figure out how.
Taya Reid is a writer + photographer on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja