Any parent who has watched their child take their first steps knows that learning doesn’t require a grade. (I have yet to witness a mother or father squeal with delight at their baby’s achievement, and then proclaim, “A+!”). At the same time, we all understand the high-stakes nature of grades in schools, especially at the high school level, and that any change in a grading system is a major undertaking.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what we’ve done at The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) in Malaysia. ISKL is a co-ed, private, not-for-profit school with 1,500 students ages 3–18 (including 600 high school students), who represent more than 65 nationalities. We offer a robust international curriculum that includes AP classes and the IB Diploma Program, but we don’t have selective admissions.

At ISKL, we value a growth mindset with a focus on continuous improvement. About five years ago, my colleagues and I realized our grading practices were not meeting our needs or those of our students. As we examined the question, “Do our current grading and reporting practices support our goals for learning?”, we decided to embark on a journey for change. Our goal was to better align with best practices for learning and not just focus on the number or letter on a report card. While we are not yet finished with our journey, our modifications have improved and refined our assessment and reporting system.

Grades Serve Multiple Purposes

One thing we identified is that we cater to two different audiences when it comes to reporting. First, we needed to create something focused inward toward students and parents that provides feedback about growth in relation to the standards we want our students to meet. This occurs through the progress reports (mid-semester) and the report cards provided at the end of each semester. This audience receives feedback about progress for that period of learning.

Second, there is the outward-facing piece with a summary of performance displayed on transcripts to communicate achievement to external organizations (for the purpose of college admissions, transfers to other high schools, or summer internship programs). Most of our time was spent on improving our practices for assessment with respect to our internal audience (students and parents).

Ultimately, we settled on a seven-point scale with clearly written performance descriptors as the best way to define success and to provide accurate feedback. This scale is used on all documents (progress reports, report cards, and the transcript), eliminating the need for conversions. In addition to academic performance, each course report details the habits of learning (e.g., engagement, collaboration, executive functioning). Teachers provide feedback on these habits, and student growth in these areas leads to improved academic performance.

Including parents in our process was paramount, given that their own past experiences with grading were different from these new approaches. During multiple parent sessions, we explained the changes, outlined our rationale, shared the research, and ultimately gained parents’ trust.

Understandably, their main concern was emotionally charged, with many asking “Will my kid get into a university? How is this going to hinder my child?” We worked to show them that changes in grading wouldn’t disadvantage their children in any way and, in fact, they realized the changes would ultimately provide more accurate feedback for the learning process.

It helped to have university admissions officers share with parents that they were indeed accustomed to a seven-point scale and that it was not a disadvantage to students. (We are clear in communicating the system we use to universities.) This seemed especially important to the parents of American students (familiar with the 4.0 GPA), who make up about 22% of our enrollment.

A Shift in Teacher Practice

As with any change in schools, teachers are the most important lever for implementation. There really has been such a positive shift in teacher practice, and I’m exceptionally pleased with the way our teachers examined their practice critically. Identifying performance descriptors for each grading level (1–7), aligning assessment structures with the performance descriptors, and collaboratively examining student work in order to moderate scoring was all accomplished during our professional learning time.

Teachers now clearly communicate daily learning targets with students, outlining goals for learning. They provide high-quality, constructive feedback, specific to where the student is (relative to where they are going), and they give it at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful in guiding students forward. Teachers have also developed ways to include opportunities for self-​reflection in each unit, so students can monitor their own growth toward the learning targets.

Multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery have been designed for each unit of study. As teachers collect a “body of evidence” of learning data over time, students appreciate that they have different chances to demonstrate their knowledge. They aren’t penalized when they don’t get something the first time, which is very important in promoting equity for both top performers as well as those who require support to demonstrate mastery. Because we no longer average scores (teachers examine growth over time, and priority is given to the most recent and relevant evidence) anxiety over the grade has decreased, and the number of requests for retakes (typically requested to increase the grade) has dropped significantly.

A System That Builds Students’ Self-Confidence

In the end, all of our procedures are designed to build students’ confidence in learning, as self-esteem is so important. For example, success criteria are described by rubrics aligned with the 1–7 performance descriptors. Students are shown these at the beginning of the learning period, which shifts the conversation between the teachers and students to learning rather than just the grade. Or, if an assessment is incomplete or missing, a score code of IE (insufficient evidence) is used to communicate that further work is required on the part of the student. There is no score code of zero. We developed a behavior intervention matrix outlining strategies teachers implement when students fail to complete work (we do not punish students with an academic penalty).

We know all students can learn, but corrective intervention might sometimes send an inadvertent message that they can’t. At our school, we’re constantly looking at how we can communicate to students that they can learn and build their confidence, even when they aren’t initially succeeding.

Throughout this whole process, we have tried to remain true to best practices for teaching and learning. We continue to communicate with members of our school community and listen to feedback. We continue to balance the inherent tension between grading and learning.

Jeff Farrington is the principal of The International School of Kuala Lumpur and the 2021 Principal of the Year for the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Overseas Schools.

Sidebar: Tips for Creating a Learning-Focused Assessment and Reporting System

  • Identify your philosophical pillars. Examine the purpose of assessment through a learning lens.
  • Reflect on your school’s alignment of procedures and practices with your school’s education philosophy.
  • Provide professional learning opportunities for teachers. Leverage and support the early adopters who already exist in your school.
  • Reach out. Identify and learn with peer schools, educational experts/organizations, and postsecondary institutions.
  • Listen! Parents, students, and teachers all have different voices and perspectives. Embed opportunities in your process for their feedback.
  • Make the software work for you. Few student information systems will meet all of your needs out of the box.
  • Honor the importance of building students’ self-confidence in their learning.
  • Separate audiences. Reports to students and parents about learning should include aspects pertinent for growth, while transcripts to external institutions must communicate achievement.