How to make sense of New Zealand school reports

School reports detail the progress of students and inform parents of any issues or challenges that could affect their child’s learning. Here’s how it works.

understanding school report cards
Cluey Learning Wednesday, 13 October 2021

When your child starts school, you’ll want to keep in touch with how they are doing and check whether their performance is on track. While you may assume your primary source of information will be your child, many parents will be used to the one-word answer at the end of the day to the question, “How was school.”

While some children will happily recount what went on in the playground or who had what in their lunchbox, when it comes to getting information about what they actually learned and did, they can be as tight lipped as a spy.

In the early primary school years, the class teacher is often available before and after school for informal chats. However, from the primary years and going forward, it is school reports that give you the most detailed information about how your child is performing.

School reports are designed according to National Administration Guidelines (NAGs) which stipulate that the reports must detail the progress of students and also inform parents of any issues or challenges that could affect their child’s learning.

Reports cover student progress in seven core subject areas, as well as eight essential skills needed that support these core subjects.

The seven core curriculum subjects are:

  1. English Language
  2. Mathematics
  3. Science
  4. Technology
  5. Social Sciences
  6. Art
  7. Health and Physical Education

The eight essential skills are:

  1. Communication Skills
  2. Numeracy Skills
  3. Information Skills
  4. Problem-solving Skills
  5. Self-Management and Competitive Skills
  6. Social and Co-operative Skills
  7. Physical Skills
  8. Work and Study Skills

While some of the essential skills support specific core subjects, such as numeracy for maths or physical skills for health and physical education, the eight essential skills in fact support all the core subject areas.

It’s expected that children develop the essential skills in both specific subjects and through all aspects of learning. For example, a science project might require communication skills, problem solving, numeracy and information skills, and social and co-operative skills.

The guidelines for school reports say that reports must be communicated:

  • in plain language
  • in writing (either on paper or digital)
  • at least twice a year
  • across The National Curriculum

There are several ways teachers collect evidence to be able to give an accurate snapshot of your child’s learning. These include:

  • collecting portfolios of children’s work
  • keeping running records of progress (used to assess reading development)
  • anecdotal observations (descriptions of what students do)
  • checklists
  • test scores
  • marking of class or homework
  • conferencing (discussing an individual piece of work with a student) student self-assessment.

The report should clearly inform you what your child has learned and provide comments on progress. It may compare your child’s performance to expected performance for their level. It should also provide comments on achievement and effort in each area, as well as how their learning has progressed since the last report you received.

The report should also include the next steps for your child by way of setting objectives for each subject matter. For example, a report on English performance may comment that your child is above standard for their level in creative writing and vocabulary, as well as standard for spelling, but needs to work on presentation and grammar, such as understanding of sentence structure, paragraphs and punctuation.

Deciphering personalised comments

Students are frequently told that they could “apply themselves more” or that their application is “erratic” or “inconsistent”. Similarly, there’s a subtle-but-important difference between an assignment being “satisfactory” and it being “pleasing”. Students often have a great deal of “potential” and there are of course all of those students who are “independent”, “show enthusiasm” and who “know their own minds”.

What do each of these phrases really mean?

“Erratic” or “inconsistent”

Saying that your child’s application is “erratic” or “inconsistent” is actually telling you that little Susan is probably playing to her strengths and ignoring anything that isn’t already easy and familiar. It’s also a veiled request to have a look at the family infrastructure around homework and perhaps to enact more consistency.

“Has a lot of potential”

If your child’s teachers say he has “so much potential”, they’re sharing their frustration with you that he’s bright enough but lazy in his approach.

“Lacks focus”

If he “lacks focus”, he’s just not applying himself.

“Emerging skills”

This tells you there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon and they haven’t given up on him just yet.

“Very social” or “enthusiastic”

Students who are “very social” or “bubbly” and who “engage enthusiastically in discussion” are likeable but chatty, and probably distract the children around them. Those who “could make more mature seating choices” are being distracted by others.


Students who are “independent” are probably not good sharers.

“Good listener”

If they’re “good listeners” they don’t ask questions or contribute in class.

“Knows his own mind”

This could mean Jack may be stubborn and uncooperative.

If your child’s report card is peppered with positive statements followed by a hefty but — “Samson is a keen student but his efforts are not always rewarded” — chances are his teachers are fond of him but a bit exasperated (you probably are too). If work is “pleasing”, it probably tells you that the teacher is writing Report Comment Number 58 and has run out of new adjectives from which to say, “Everything’s okay, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Finally, if your child’s teachers end a report with, “She’s a pleasure to teach”, chances are it’s true. Teachers don’t use that phrase gratuitously.

When your child is doing well

Some phrases that emerge from the syllabus are clear indicators that your child is excelling. Terms like “sophisticated understanding” and “confident application” are strong signals that your child is working at an impressive level. If he has a “clear understanding” and his work is “effective”, he is noticeably making progress and you have little to be worried about. If skills are “secure” and there’s talk of “improvement”, everything is going in the right direction.

Comments about your child’s ambition or hunger for learning may also indicate that she’s not being fully extended in class and the teacher is recommending that you explore opportunities for enrichment.

When your child may be having difficulties

If your child is only able to demonstrate certain skills “at times” or has “some or little understanding”, it’s likely that he needs a fair amount of academic support. If he’s passive or quiet, it may be that the teacher is finding it difficult to grasp his levels of knowledge and ability. This could have a number of implications that are worth discussing.

If your child’s report cards talk a lot about “inconsistencies”, particularly between different modes of expression, it’s worth getting more information. A student who is much more adept verbally than in writing could have a special learning need, but it could equally be that fine motor skills need more attention.

If your child is described as having “difficulties adjusting to rules and routines”, this might be the teacher telling you he’s misbehaved, or it may suggest that there’s something else going on. Equally, pay attention if the teacher mentions that your child finds it difficult to adjust to changes in routine.

If a teacher describes your child as a “perfectionist”, this is not necessarily a good thing. It could be that she’s so particular about presentation, or so frightened of getting something wrong, that she resists submitting anything for feedback. This is something to be concerned about. The earlier you address perfectionist tendencies, the earlier your child will get used to learning from their mistakes.

Remember, teachers’ observations are powerful, but they’re not formal diagnoses.

The best and the worst comments in a report card

The best comments a teacher can write in a report card are comments that are specific to your child and show you that the teacher really knows her. The worst are generic. Even if you’re being told something negative about your child’s academic abilities or behaviour, it’s better to hear it straight so that you can work with the school to provide the necessary support. The worst report comments are jargonistic and procedural – telling you what the class has covered but offering very little information about how your child is progressing.

It’s also important to note that report cards are not merely retrospective, but also provide genuine advice about where their focus should lie for the coming term or year.

Parent Teacher Interviews

Sometimes, understanding school reports can be challenging, especially if you are not familiar with the New Zealand education system. Luckily, after you receive the school report in writing, these are followed up by parent/teacher interviews so you can ask any questions about the report.

Nowadays, the child usually also attends these meetings, and is given the opportunity to talk to you about what they are doing. This type of parent/teacher/child meeting is often referred to as conferencing. 

The rationale behind this is that the child takes responsibility for their own learning and being able to explain their progress to you demonstrates evidence that they have an understanding of their own performance, what they are doing well, and what they need to work on.

It is useful to come bring some notes to the school interview as often there’s limited time, so it will be easier if you have prepared some questions. Helpful questions include:

  • Anything in the report you don’t understand
  • Does my child participate well in class?
  • Are they progressing as expected?
  • What do they do well?
  • What do they need help with?
  • What can I do to help?
  • Does my child seem settled at school? How do they get along with others?
  • Are there any areas of concern?
  • What will they learn next?
  • What’s the best way to contact you if I want to follow up on anything we’ve talked about?

Talking about the school report with your child

School reports should always contain positive and encouraging detail on a child’s performance as well as truthful feedback on where they need to improve. It’s tempting as a parent to focus on the negative, as you may be anxious that your child has not done as well as expected in say maths when their grandfather was a mathematical genius.

Remember that each child is individual and learns at their own pace. Always focus on the positives first. Look at what they are doing well, praise them for that and talk to them about it. Then ask them their thoughts on the subject areas they may be finding challenging. Ask both your child and the teacher what you can do to help and if needed, find out if there is extra help available at school such as lunchtime tutoring.

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