The design of laminated composite based components requires a detailed analysis of the response of the structure when subjected to external loads. For the analysis of laminated composite plates, several plate theories have been proposed in the literature. Generally, these plate theories are used to obtain certain global response quantities like the buckling load. However, the use of these theories to obtain local response quantities, i.e. point-wise stresses; interlaminar stresses and strains, can lead to significant errors. In this paper, a detailed study of the quality of the point-wise stresses obtained using higher-order shear deformable, hierarchic and layerwise theories is done for a plate under transverse loading. The effect of equilibrium based post-processing on the transverse stress quantities is also studied. From the detailed study it is observed that the layerwise theory is very accurate. However, for all the models proper mesh design is required to capture boundary layer effects, discretization error, etc. Using focussed adaptivity, and post-processed state of stress, accurate representation of the local state of stress can be obtained, even with the higher-order shear deformable theories. Using this approach, the first-ply failure load is obtained with the Tsai-Wu criterion. It is observed that use of an adaptive procedure leads to significantly lower failure loads as compared to those given in the literature. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.