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Understanding how ATARs work

how ATARs work

Posted by Sam Daffy – Melbourne Tutor on 1/8/2016

Image by – Baim Hanif

A lot of parents and students don’t really get how ATARs work. And frankly, I don’t blame you – it’s quite convoluted, but hopefully this will help.

Before we get to the ATAR, let’s start with the subjects. Each VCE subject consists of four units, and each unit takes two terms (half a year). So the four units take two years, which is why most VCE subjects are done over Years 11 and 12. The bit that affects your ATAR is units 3 and 4, which is mostly done in year 12. A lot of students do one or two ‘year 12’ subjects (units 3 and 4) in year 11 to get a taste of what SACs and VCE exams etc. are like. This is probably a very good idea, even though I didn’t do it myself.

So within each subject, for units 3 and 4, there is school assessed coursework (SACs) and at the end of the year there’s an exam. Some more hands-on subjects have school assessed tasks (SATs) as well as SACs. Every subject has at least one SAC, but there’s a fair bit of variation between subjects. The SACs and especially the exam contribute to the study score for the subject.

So these SACs, SATs and exams combine to give you a score out of 50, right? Wrong. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Every student within each subject is ranked, then given a score according to a bell curve (called the normal distribution), as shown below:


The complicated yet normal distribution of study scores

So the average score for each subject is 30, with 68% of all students getting between 23 and 37, and these scores go all the way up to a few students getting 50, and in theory, all the way down to 1.

So that’s subject scores done, right? Not quite – next we come to scaling. There are two types of scores to think about – the ones I’ve just described are called raw study scores, but then these are scaled and they become scaled study scores.

Subject scores are scaled because some subjects are seen as harder than others. For instance, Specialist Mathematics scales higher than Mathematical Methods. Every year the scaling for each subject is slightly different, but it doesn’t usually change too much. So some subjects, like Specialist Mathematics, scale up, so that if your raw score in 2015 was 30, your scaled score would be 41. Other subjects like English don’t scale much at all, while some subjects, like Further Mathematics, actually scale down, so that if your raw score in 2015 was 30, your scaled score would be 27. This is meant to balance out the fact that some subjects are harder than others to do well in. Some subjects, like languages other than English, are given extra scaling because the government wants to give students an extra incentive to study them (in this case so that we can do business etc. with people from overseas who don’t speak English).

So once you get all your scaled study scores, including from any Unit 3 and 4 subjects that were taken in Year 11, they are added up and the number that comes out the other end is your aggregate.

Then, once again, each student is ranked, except this time it’s against every other Year 12 student in Victoria. And finally, you get your ATAR, which can be anywhere from 0 to 99.95. It can’t be 100 because it’s a measure of the percentage of students you beat, and you can’t be better than everyone including yourself.

So that’s the complicated, technical thing that is the ATAR system. To summarise, your SACs, SATs and Exams become your study scores (raw then scaled), which then become your ATAR.

atar process.png

The ATAR process

Resources: ATAR Calculators


Author: admin

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