Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek has long expressed concerns about the quality of teacher education courses in Australia.
When an OECD survey found many Australian teachers felt under-prepared for classroom management, Plibersek launched a tweet to say “the quality of some teaching degrees is simply not good enough”, and that action must be taken to “raise the standard”.
“Marks to get into teaching are getting lower + lower,” Plibersek wrote.
Is she correct? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Plibersek’s claim is not clear cut.
Students enter teaching courses in different ways, with about a quarter enrolling straight from school, and others studying postgraduate degrees or enrolling on the basis of tertiary study or vocational education and training.
Experts could only identify detailed enrolment data for around 20% of people studying teaching.
That data shows the distribution of entry scores among students enrolling straight from school, based on their Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (or ATAR), for the years 2007 to 2016.
From this, Plibersek could fairly claim that teaching courses are enrolling more school leavers with lower marks, and fewer with higher marks.
While that change might drag down the average entry score, it does not necessarily mean universities have lowered their minimum entry thresholds.
Experts said there may be more lower scoring students being enrolled through the use of alternative admissions criteria.
However, the published data for entry scores does not cover these students, who represent the bulk of those enrolling in teaching courses.
Getting into teaching
Plibersek wrote of “marks to get into teaching”, which Fact Check takes to mean the minimum marks an applicant needs to be admitted into a teacher training course.
These courses, offered by universities and other institutions, take the form of undergraduate or postgraduate degrees totalling at least four years of study, either specialised or combined with other qualifications.
Making the mark
The ATAR is a measure of high-school academic achievement that translates a school leaver’s final grades into a percentile score.
Strictly speaking, it is not an absolute mark, but a rank that will rise or fall depending on the competition that year.
Professor Claire Wyatt-Smith, Director of Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, told Fact Check that each state calculates the ATAR differently, making it “a common word but not a common measure”.
Still, according to the Federal government-owned Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, or AITSL, the score is “currently the primary source of nationally comparable data on entry standards to tertiary education”.
Experts were unable to identify any datasets that considered other “marks”, such as prior university study.
Plibersek’s tweet isn’t the first time she has criticised entry standards for teacher training.
During a speech in February 2019 she said: “Marks to get into teaching degrees continue to fall and fewer high achievers are choosing teaching courses.”
A month earlier, Plibersek told reporters: “We’re lowering entry levels all the time. There may well be extraordinary people who get a lower ATAR who would make a great teacher but as a rule, we need to be lifting the standard, lifting the cut-off, not lowering it.”
She called on universities to “stop the slide” by setting minimum entry scores for teaching at 80 ATAR points, a move supported by the federal education union but opposed by the peak body for university deans of education.
Tougher entry requirements have been introduced in Victoria, where the State Government has set a floor of 70 ATAR points for school leavers, and NSW, where students must score at least 80 points in three ATAR subjects.
Measuring the minimum
Now, you might think the entry scores advertised by universities would show whether marks were falling. But that’s not the case.
Melbourne University Emeritus Professor Stephen Dinham told Fact Check the advertised cut-offs generally referred to guaranteed entry scores, and that universities “take people a lot lower than that”.
So when it comes to measuring entry standards, he said, the advertised scores can be misleading.
Indeed, a ministerial advisory group found in 2014 that these were “a weak guide to actual entry standards” for teaching courses, with some universities enrolling many students who did not meet them.
Another problem with measuring the academic hurdle is that students are not necessarily admitted on their ATAR alone.
According to AITSL, “having an ATAR available does not indicate this was the mechanism by which the student was selected for a program”.
As Plibersek noted in January, they can also make allowances “for people who for some reason or another have a particularly bad year in high school”.
The rules vary between course providers and, as the Government’s Higher Education Standards Panel found, they can be opaque.
According to a 2015 report by AITSL: “As the selection processes are tailored towards selecting students for specific programs and in specific contexts, no aggregated data on the selection processes exist.”
Professor Wyatt-Smith said it wasn’t possible to say whether overall entry standards were falling because “we haven’t got a composite of all the indicators that are considered, at the national level”.
So, what data is there?
Experts told Fact Check the best source for statistics on teacher training courses was AITSL, which publishes yearly admissions data gathered by the Commonwealth Department of Education.
Its latest ATAR figures, for 2016, only cover school leavers who enrolled in undergraduate degrees.
The report shows that of the almost 30,000 students admitted to teaching degrees in 2016, roughly 13,000 new undergraduate students came from elsewhere — admitted on the basis of mature entry or higher education, for example — while more than 9000 were studying postgraduate degrees.
Of the nearly 7300 domestic school leavers, nearly 2300 did not have an ATAR recorded.
All told, data on entry scores was available for around 5000 students, or just 17% of new teaching students in 2016.
A submission from the education department to a recent parliamentary inquiry suggested similar figures for 2017, with 82% of all new teaching students “admitted on a basis other than ATAR”.
Professor Dinham told Fact Check the institute’s data was “probably” the best proxy currently on offer.
But Professor Wyatt Smith, citing the few students affected by ATARs and the array of other variables to consider, said student scores were “not a proxy for minimum entry thresholds”.
What the numbers show
The 2018 AITSL report includes a time series showing the proportion of new undergraduate teaching students with scores in six ATAR ranges.
It shows that between 2007 and 2016, there was a fall in the share of higher-scoring students — those with ATARs of 71 to 80 and 81 to 90 — and an increase in the share of students with scores in the lower ranges of 30 to 50 and 51 to 60.
Meanwhile, there was a slight increase in the share of students with ATARs of 91 to 100.
In other words, there are increasing numbers of students with “below average” ATARs getting into teaching.
Lower and lower?
Plibersek’s tweet said marks were getting lower and lower.
Though she did not specify a time period, both the 10 and five-year trends do show that, while the share of students with scores of 61 to 70 and 91 to 100 remained more or less stable, there were fewer students enrolling with ATARs of 71 to 90 and more enrolling with ATARs of 30 to 60.
There was a slight increase in high-achieving students in the final year of data, with the proportion of students in the three highest bands — with scores from 71 to 100 — all rising in 2016.
However, the trends do not prove scores “to get into teaching” are getting lower.
Enrolling more students with ATAR scores of 35, for example, might lower the average student entry score, but that is not the same as lowering a minimum entry requirement from 35 to 30.
In summary, while the numbers do not prove universities have been progressively lowering entry thresholds, they do show that lower-scoring students are becoming more common.
What the numbers don’t show
Julie Sonnemann, School Education Fellow with the Grattan Institute, said that while the ATAR data only applied to a slice of undergraduate students, it did not necessarily mean undergraduate students entering through other pathways had performed any better at high school.
Dr Rachel Wilson, senior lecturer in educational assessment with the University of Sydney, said there was a “concerning” number of school leavers being enrolled without an ATAR.
Indeed, the latest AITSL report shows they accounted for roughly a third of new undergraduate teaching students in 2016 — or 2262 of 7482 students. (That share fell in recent years but rose over the decade).
Wilson explained that all school leavers will receive a score when they finish school, but universities do not have to report them if the student is enrolled on another basis.
“Effectively this leaves the Commonwealth … in the dark about standards of admission for a very large proportion of entrants,” she said.
According to a 2018 ABC News report, a leaked 2018 report co-authored by Wilson stated that some of these students in NSW and the ACT were being offered places in teaching degrees with ATARs as low as zero.
Dinham said the published data may hide more low-scoring school leavers who switch into teaching from other university courses.
Until recently, the teaching institute published ATARs for a small group of students it said were “likely selected as a result of other evidence such as their previous … higher education academic results”.
Its 2014 figures showed that these undergraduates had lower scores (ATARs) than students enrolling on the basis of their performance in secondary education.
Dinham also told Fact Check that there was “great variation” in entry standards and course quality, particularly for undergraduate degrees — a point that highlights the difficulty in making definitive statements about teacher training as a whole.
Principal researcher: David Campbell
- Tanya Plibersek, Tweet, June 19, 2019
- SMH, Low ATAR students admitted into teaching degrees on the rise, December 30, 2018
- ABC News, Teaching students’ highs school marks are dropping, but universities say it doesn’t matter, December 2, 2017
- University Admissions Centre, Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank, accessed July 2019
- Grattan Institute, University attrition: what helps and what hinders university completion?, April 2018
- Tanya Plibersek, Doorstop interview, January 6, 2019
- Tanya Plibersek, Press Club speech, February 20, 2019
- Australian Labor Party, National policy platform, 2018
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- OECD, TALIS 2018 Results (Volume I), June 19, 2019
- Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, Data report on initial teacher education, December 2018
- Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, Data report on initial teacher education, December 2016
- Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, Data report on initial teacher education, December 2015
- Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, Data dashboard, accessed July 11, 2019
- Mitchell Institute, Crunching the Number, March 2018
- Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, Action now: Classroom ready teachers, December 2014
- Department of Education, Selected higher education statistics – 2016 student data
- Parliamentary Library, Demand-driven higher education system, accessed July 11, 2019
- Natasha Robinson, Students with lowest ATAR scores being offered places in teaching degrees: secret report, September 18, 2018