What your child’s report card is really saying.

Drawing on her experience writing and proofing end-of-year school reports, Cluey Chief Learning Officer, Dr Selina Samuels, shares her top tips for deciphering report cards.

understanding school report cards
Dr Selina Samuels Education expert BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Thursday, 9 December 2021

For several years, I worked at a private school in Sydney. As part of this role, I had the privilege of looking over all end-of-year reports. Combing through these, one thing was immediately obvious: certain terms come up again and again.

Understanding the syllabus

Some common report phrases have very specific reference to achievement levels defined by the Australian syllabus. Unfortunately, these often make little sense to parents or students.

Terms like “working towards” or “exceeding expectations” usually comprise the first part of the report and tell you what your child has covered in the course, as well as the skills that your child was expected to acquire. If the report doesn’t provide you with examples, it’s a good idea to ask your child to tell you which specific content and assignments addressed these skills. If the answer is forthcoming, all is well. If not, it might be worth raising the issue with your child’s teacher at the next parent/teacher interview.

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 she “lacks focus”, she’s just not applying herself.

“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 she’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.

Understanding Australian grading systems

While some schools have chosen not to incorporate grades into their formal reports, a five-point letter grade system (A–E) is included in the achievement standards of the Australian National Curriculum.

  • An A is awarded for extremely high achievement and is described using words such as “sophisticated” and “confident”.
  • A B grade represents work that is “effective” and demonstrates “clear understanding”. Students are awarded B grades for work that is capable and secure.
  • C grades are awarded when the student “is able to” demonstrate particular skills or where understanding is “developing”. Skills may be inconsistent.
  • D grades are awarded where the output of the student shows “some understanding” or where the student is only able to demonstrate skills “at times”. D grades may indicate that the student has not done much of the required work, or what they have submitted is incomplete.
  • E grades show that the student may have “little” or only “rudimentary” understanding of the concepts covered in the subject. The student may require considerable teacher support to demonstrate any understanding or skills.

It’s important to remember that grades are awarded for student achievement or output in a subject — they don’t attach to individuals. Beware if teachers use the phrase, “Esmerelda is a C-grade student” – this sounds like a fixed state.

Finally, pay attention to effort ratings if they’re included in your child’s report cards. They give the best insight into your child’s resilience, application, attitude and potential. In particular, it’s worth noting whether there’s a discrepancy between effort rating and grade. This may be a sign that your child needs greater support to fill gaps in their knowledge, to engage their curiosity and enthusiasm, or to extend them beyond the current level of their classroom.

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