The unbearable lightness of making an OTJ on National Standards

Time of year where we are sending home statements about what our students learning goals for the year are. As these are reports going home, they must include a statement about National Standards and be in plain English. Personally I prefer my English in pink and purple polka dots but I digress.

I’ve had a number of problems National Standards in the past but now I’m having to make an overall teacher judgement about whether I think my kids will be at standard by the end of the year I’ve run into a huge set of ethical dilemmas.

There are a few kids in my classroom who without any real input from me are already at standard right now. If National Standards measure success, then what is our system telling the kids who are already there? You’re deemed to be at where you should for your age now put your feet up and watch the year go by. At the other end of the spectrum there are a few kids who even with a herculean effort are unlikely to be at standard by the end of the year. I can’t think of anything more demoralizing for a kid, or anyone really, then being told at the start of the year that even if pull out all the stops and work harder than they ever imagined, you’ll still be below standard at the end of the year.

Yes I realize that standards are supposed to be aspirational and I should have high expectations of all my students, but this needs to balanced by principles of honesty and fairness. Yet even the principle of honesty must be couched. When I hear of stories of children in tears about being labelled below standard and how distressing this must be for some kids and some parents I know I need to be careful when giving those cold hard facts. And it this judgement without context which is the reason why a lot of teachers loathe national standards.

Yet I realize that these feelings aren’t the same for parents.

Last school reporting season I watched my facebook feed light up with friends proudly mentioning that their kids are above National Standards to know that the standards do mean something to parents.  A safeguard that yes my kid is doing ok, or no my kid needs help.

But the parents aren’t the only people who read school reports.

As I’m writing my comments and making my judgements on these statements I’m very aware of my student audience.  That audience is the reason why I’ve spent more time this weekend worrying about whether or not the kids in my classroom will meet National Standard at the end of the year than I have on identifying their next learning steps or even planning for next week’s classes. In short I’ve spent more time worrying about where the kids are according National Standards than I have working out where they need to go and how we are going to get them there.

I know I shouldn’t over think these judgements but it is such a big call to stick a label on kid.

People outside of the education sector seem to assume that there is a definite line in the sand between the kids that are achieving or not.  However even with the wealth of assessment information my school has on each child I still feel like I am performing nano surgery with a sledge hammer when it comes to making a judgement on national standards for some children.

For a number of children the weight of the previous teacher judgements weights heavily on my mind especially if the evidence I have supports an entirely different conclusion from a child’s previous report. The previous teacher might well have made a mistake. I know despite asking for the advice of others, there will be kids I have made an error of judgement on. This doesn’t make them or me a bad teacher. In fact it doesn’t make us any different from any primary teacher in New Zealand.

Because the bigger mistake that has been made is thinking of learning as a product rather than a process. And it worries me greatly that these labels are detracting us from the conversations we need to be having over a child’s next learning step. Despite arguments to the contrary, assessment isn’t a science and should not be treated as such. A guide to be sure, but ultimately like all measures of the human mind entirely fallible by our innate individuality.

11 thoughts on “The unbearable lightness of making an OTJ on National Standards

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  1. Hi Stephanie

    You have described very well some of the realities of National Standards, I liked your point about the children who are already there (and you know how I feel about the ones that are not…:) )

    I watch with absolute dismay at the hours consumed by such a narrow part of schooling. There is the testing, the analysing, the data entry, the reporting, the OTJ angst, the creating experiences to ‘fill the gaps’ (aka teaching to the test) and I think to myself: imagine if we had just half of that time to create more innovative and personalised education programmes for our kids?

    In the next week I have ‘parent interviews’ for my own kids. I am going to ask that their teachers do not discuss my childrens numeracy and literacy with me. Instead I would like to converse about their abilities around the key competencies and creativity. I’m not doing it to be one of ‘those parents’ but I think it is important that this kind of dialogue goes the other way. I know I’m only a small drop in the ocean, but the more parents that stand up and say “this is not what we want for our kids” the better.

    While I’m here have you seen this? (I dont know how to link on your fancy wordpress – you may need to cut’n’paste 🙂


  2. Hi Tara
    I think we haven’t really talked about the flip side of national standards in that it might work at codifying some aspects of the New Zealand curriculum by its very definition standardization doesn’t enable for kids who don’t for whatever reasons meet the norms.

    However I think there is a lot of fear rightly or wrongly being generated about people’s experience with schooling and standards are seen as a way of giving parents more certainty about their child’s progress. Moreover in an era where smaller families are becoming the norm, this creates more demands of kids and schools to produce the goods.

    I do agree that learning behaviours are important and it would be good if there is more of an emphasis on this as well as content knowledge.



  3. “Because the bigger mistake that has been made is thinking of learning as a product rather than a process.”

    Case and point, you have nailed this. So eloquently worded 🙂 I am in my third year of teaching in the Far North I’ve got year 2s this year after 2 years of year 3s. I’m Canadian, and studied at Otago in 2009, and absolutely fell in love with New Zealand’s world class education system, as it is very different to what I grew up with, so it is quite heartbreaking so see NZ start copying other countries failed attempts in the name of saving money, when so many countries have looked to what NZ has been doing.


    1. HI Kate
      There’s a lot ex canukistani teachers in New Zealand (I was born there) but you are right when I’ve been overseas most people have spoken quite positively of the New Zealand education system and what we do here.



  4. An interesting article Stephanie. It seems all us teachers are at the same point in the year. I am also at the stage of putting together NS reports with my students.

    I agree with alot of what you have said. I dont agree with a lot of what National Standards stand for, the way they have been implemented or where they may go in the future. Most of those issues have been already discussed. However, I think there are some good aspects to the system that I am trying to remember as I work through the process.

    1. National Standards force teachers to be brutally honest with parents.
    I have been teaching for 10 years and I believe over the years we have sold students and parents short because we have not been ‘honest’ enough as to where students are currently achieving. National Standards force teachers to put a line in the sand and say to parents that you child is above, at or below. For many students, especially those who can achieve but dont this will be good.

    As a side on this the legal obligation for schools is to report to parents not to students. If schools are really concerned about hurting students feelings by labelling them why dont they set up a system which means reporting is done straight to the parents.
    Personally I teach year 7 and 8 students. They are not stupid and if the teacher is doing a good job they will know where they are currently achieving. The National Standard report shouldn’t come as some great shock in the night. I do conceed that this may not be the case for younger students.

    2. It focuses us more clearly as teachers as to what is important.
    Now I may get into trouble here but I believe we waste too much time on some subjects within our curriculum and neglect those that are more important. The reality is that students MUST have a grasp of literacy (reading and writing) to succeed in our education system. Whether this is right is another discussion.
    I teach in a Year 7-13 school and I was talking to a senior Maths teacher the other day and they showed me the latest standards at Year 12. Maths is far different from when I am at school. Students must read and comprehend pages of text just to work out what a questions is asking.
    I hope that National Standards will see a great amount of time being spent on literacy etc due to the priority of getting students to the required standard.
    I know already this year I will be doing more written work with my students because many of them will be below the standard. By the end of the year I will have worked flippin hard to provide as many opportunities and skills to improve their writing. If this means I have to spend less time on ICT or sport (my 2 passions) then that is what I will have to do.

    p.s- It is late on a Sunday evening. I will not be re reading my work. Sorry if there are errors or spelling mistakes. Just mark me below the Standard!!!:)


    1. I think the key point I made is that standards are judgement without context. There are some students both above and below and even the middle for whom the standards are incredibly damaging and demotivating. It should be up to teachers how to communicate and while we may legally be reporting to parents, that report is issued in the students name.

      I don’t disagree with you that literacy is important. But without having rich and interesting lives students aren’t going to have those experiences to make them want to read and write.


  5. Stephanie
    Wow you have articulated this very well and mentioned many of my own concerns. I actually just came up against a parent who got a land when I suggested her son was not ready to cope with Year 6 maths. Previous teacher had marked them ‘at’ standard. Oh dear!

    The standards are aspirational. So of course not everyone will get there, they may be ‘average’ but no where there, because average is not enough.

    I too have students who are already above the standard at the beginning of the year! Oh dear again.

    I have always been honest with parents because that is a belief of mine, and it can be devastating for a parent who hears from me their Year 8 student is unable to read. Someone should have been ‘brutally honest’ way before me. How much plain English was used? Not enough. We sure can fluff.

    National standards are just a mess in my opinion. I like the literacy progressions because they show the needed progression but standards are so confusing. Hate them. I want my students to build from where they are. I will do my best to place at NS because I have to but I know it is a hugely inexact judgement. Down with OTJ’s.



  6. Hi Stephanie
    I have enjoyed reading your blog… you raise many valid points 🙂 I received a school report for my Y8 daughter at the end of last year that stated she was at the standard for literacy and numeracy. My problem was it was the same comment as her Y7 report. Neither report showed any progress. Parents I have spoken to (I am also a Y6 teacher) want to know what progress their child has made this year more than an aspirational line in the sand.


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