Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

The Primary Issue: Quality of school report cards a 'lottery'

Thousands of children begin secondary school each year without the reading, writing or maths skills needed to make it through. In a new series 'The Primary Issue' we look at what more can be done to raise achievement for all Kiwi kids.

Rainbow, monochrome, too much detail, not enough - the quality of school report cards remains a lottery, parents say.

Two recent studies have found that more than half of all reports are unclear, despite requirements they be written in plain language "free from educational jargon".


The new-style reports require each include data on whether a child is above or below in reading, writing and maths.

Reporting was a key element of the National Standards initiative, designed to lift achievement by creating clear expectations. The intention was that families would be well informed and therefore better able to support children in the home.

However, six years on, parents told the Herald they still find the reports confusing.

Their comments echo findings from the 2013 National Standards School Sample Monitoring & Evaluation Project, which found that 43 per cent of reports were unclear. It said despite guidelines requiring information about the ways families could support children at home, the proportion including such information had diminished over time.

A second study, from the University of Auckland, had similar findings, and recommended information about children's attitudes, as well as their abilities, should be compulsory; and that written reports were more effective when combined with parent interviews.

Of 20 school reports sent in to the Herald, about half were judged clear. Others were indecipherable. Results were similar to when a panel judged some of the first reports in 2010.

Savinder Bedi, whose son Sartaj is now 16, was one of the panelists at the time and said basically the reports only stated whether is was above or below.

"I now feel that was not very reflective of where my child was heading to. When I see the NCEA current reporting standards that they have, they are quite focused ... and much easier to read. We actually feel they report his strengths and weaknesses."

Parent-to-two Dionne Christian said she felt the reports while straight forward, were too reductive as they only focused on reading, writing and maths.

"If you're a child who doesn't achieve in those areas ... how's that going to make you feel? The anguish it causes some families is dreadful."

Owner of Number Works 'n' Words Henderson, Alison England, said a large part of her job was explaining reports to parents.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding, particularly with the broad labels. They struggle to know what the levels mean."

Mrs England said the reports could have a large impact on parents.

"Often it's the first time been told their children are failing. The old reports would skirt around it more. It can be a kick in the teeth."

Read more:
The Primary Issue: Are our schools making the grade?
The Primary Issue: National Standards - why aren't they working?

National standards

Joy Luker with her daughter Elise. Photo / George Novak
Joy Luker with her daughter Elise. Photo / George Novak

Papamoa mother of two Joy Luker is an advocate for national standards, despite knowing teachers generally dislike the system.

"It shows me where my kids are standing and what they need to work on.

"If my kids' reports are coming in and they are testing low, I'd be looking to get that sorted before they got to college where they have to stand on their own two feet," she said.

Ms Luker has a son, aged 14 and a daughter, 12.

Asking plenty of questions about how to interpret the report and what it all means is key, she said.

"The first time you get the report you don't have a clue because its got A's and Ps and Bs and a line with a grey box.

"But I've asked a lot of questions about it and teachers are pretty good at talking to you about it," Ms Luker said.

"I've got quite an intelligent son. He's in the gifted class, and it was really interesting one year because he was testing well above his year in one subject but below the national standard in another. It was really good for him because he realized he needed to work on that subject a bit more."

However, she said parents should take the national standard with a grain of salt.

One of her son's teachers said she "always marked hard" so although it is a national standard there is some room for interpretation from teachers and parents.

The series

• Day 1: National Standards: A failed crusade?
• Day 2: Measuring the success of Early Childhood Education
• Day 3: Teacher quality: How to raise the status
• Day 4: The problem with maths
• Day 5: Peace, war and reading

- Additional reporting by the Bay of Plenty Times

- NZ Herald

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