Decoding the jargon

Upper School Thursday, 22 June 2023

It is sometimes difficult to imagine that when the parents of current Year 10, 11 and 12 students were completing high school, the world of learning was very different.  For many parents (and grandparents), it sure feels like there were fewer acronyms you needed to know to get through Year 12!   To help decode the jargon, we’ve put together a basic guide for those who may be more familiar with terms such as Tertiary Entrance Examination (TEE) and Tertiary Entrance Score (or TES), which were in use in Western Australia until 2010. 


The Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE) is the credential awarded to students who complete secondary education (i.e. graduate from high school).  To achieve the WACE, they must meet requirements in breadth and depth of study, minimum achievement standards, and minimum literacy and numeracy standards (through NAPLAN or OLNA). This includes completing at least 20 units across Year 11 and 12, including four English units, and at least a pair of units each from List A and List B subjects. List A can be broadly categorised as Humanities learning areas, and List B covers STEM (Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering).

A WACE program can include a mix of ATAR, General, VET or Certificate courses, as well as Endorsed Programs.  Not all schools offer all these options, though the majority of secondary schools will offer both ATAR and General courses, with some offering a selection of VET or Certificate courses.  Endorsed programs can be completed independently by the student or may be available through their school.  Helena College offers ATAR and General courses, as well as access to selected Endorsed Programs.

Let’s break down what each of these terms mean.

ATAR Pathway

Generally speaking, an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Academic Rank) is required if a student intends to go on and complete university studies, though alternate pathways are available, depending on the university and degree the student intends studying towards.

An ATAR course is a two-year study program consisting of four units (two in Year 11 and two in Year 12) and concludes with an external exam at the end of Year 12. For the majority of ATAR courses, students will need to complete the Year 11 units successfully in order to continue with the Year 12 units.

Students may undertake an ATAR course even if they do not intend to apply for university. However, students who would like to use their ATAR score as part of an application to attend university must complete a minimum of four ATAR courses in Year 12 to do so.

An ATAR of 90 means that a student has achieved results better than 90 per cent of students in that year.  The ATAR is determined by the TEA (Tertiary Entrance Aggregate) – the total of the students' best four scaled ATAR courses at the end of Year 12.

Each university sets its own minimum ATAR requirements for the undergraduate programs that it offers.

General Pathway

A General subject is a two-year course across Year 11 and 12 which counts towards the WACE, but not towards generating an ATAR.

 As part of a General course, all students are required to complete an Externally Set Task (EST) for that course in Year 12. It is an assessment set by the School Curriculum and Standards Authority (SCSA) and is conducted in a test-like setting at the school.

General courses are for students who are typically aiming to enter vocationally-based training (such as TAFE or other RTO) or plans to enter the workforce straight from school.  Students who aim to attain an ATAR can choose to complete a General course as part of their WACE, provided they complete a minimum of four ATAR courses.

Endorsed Programs

Endorsed programs provide access to learning not covered by WACE courses or VET programs and can contribute to the WACE as unit equivalents.  Endorsed programs can be delivered by schools, workplaces, universities and community organisations. Each endorsed program consists of a series of lessons, classes and/or activities designed to lead to the achievement of a common goal or set of learning outcomes.

Examples of endorsed programs at Helena College include structured workplace learning experiences through WorkLink, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, which is available as an extracurricular activity. 

VET or Certificate Courses

Some schools offer specialised Vocational Education & Training (VET) industry specific courses, which include a full VET qualification and mandatory workplace learning, and can contribute towards the WACE, if the qualification earned is Certificate II or higher.

VET industry specific courses are for students aiming to enter further vocational training (such as TAFE or an apprenticeship), and those who wish to enter the workforce straight from school.  Helena College does not offer VET industry specific courses, but many of our General courses can provide pathways to similar outcomes for students.

Other Acronyms and Terms

Alternative Pathways: Many universities are recognising that ATAR may not be the best route to tertiary study for some students and have subsequently established alternative pathways to entry.  This may be through a university bridging course, or for some degrees, by way of portfolio entry.  Options vary from university to university, as well as differing between degree programs.

Early Offers: During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities chose to consider a student’s Year 11 results instead of waiting for the Year 12 exams and the release of ATARs.  While this was beneficial to many of those who had disrupted learning due to lockdowns and illness, the longevity of the early offer programs remains in doubt.  Some Early Offers were conditional (i.e. still requiring confirmation after the ATAR is released, or on results in specific courses), and others were unconditional.

NAPLAN: National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy. This is the only nationwide assessment of Australian children’s literacy and numeracy skills. It provides the measure through which governments, education authorities and schools can determine whether or not young Australians are meeting important educational outcomes. Students  are assessed in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

OLNA: Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment. This is designed to assist secondary school students (Years 10, 11 and 12) to meet the minimum standards of literacy and numeracy to obtain their WACE. Once students have passed the minimum standard, they are not required to sit the assessment again. Students are given six opportunities to pass this assessment. Students can pre-qualify through their Year 9 NAPLAN results if they achieve Band 8 or higher on Reading, Writing and/or Numeracy.

RTO: Registered Training Organisation. Schools may partner with RTOs to provide Endorsed, VET or Certificate programs.

SCSA: The School Curriculum and Standards Authority is responsible for Kindergarten to Year 12 curriculum, assessment, standards and reporting for all Western Australian schools.

TISC: The Tertiary Institutions Service Centre processes applications for undergraduate courses at Curtin, ECU, Murdoch and UWA. TISC scales the WACE results and calculates the ATAR for students in Western Australia

TAFE:  Technical and Further Education

WASSA: Western Australian Statement of Student Achievement. All students, regardless of whether they achieve their WACE or not, will receive a WASSA from SCSA, which outlines their learning achievements for Years 11 and 12.