Last time, I argued that rubrics really are a good thing, despite Alfie Kohn. However, I wrote assuming that the rubrics teachers are using to have rich conversations are good rubrics.
Alfie Kohn, as I noted previously, says that, “Some insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that there’s no problem as long as one uses a good rubric.” I’m actually going to argue that, for the uses I described in the previous post, a good rubric is essential. If your purpose is to have rich conversations about what students have mastered and where they need to go, instead of measuring, quantifying, or reducing students, the rubric you use matters.
Which raises the question- what makes a rubric “good”?
I’ll start with the kind of rubric I used to write. Here’s a short section of a rubric from a multi-genre research paper:
Follows genre conventions? _____/ 5
At least three facts? _____/ 5
Citations? _____/ 5 Total: _____/ 15
And here’s another piece of a rubric for a personal narrative with an accompanying movie:
I was definitely making an attempt at creating a “good” and helpful rubric, based on what I knew at the time. However, these rubrics have a few major issues.
- Learning Trajectory: In the rubrics above, the student learning trajectory, or moving from one level to another, is primarily defined in points OR amount of work (e.g. a proficient movie has four images, an advanced movie has sound and visual effects). While it’s true that the indicators may also include additional content knowledge, they don’t clearly define a students’ learning trajectory as they move from just beginning to understand how to do something to fully appropriating a particular skill or piece of knowledge. We need to make meaningful distinctions between levels of proficiency. This makes it tricky to define what might be needed to help students become more skilled- beyond just saying, “add one more revision and you’ll be at proficient.” Takeaway: Rubrics should articulate how a student learns a skill or piece of knowledge, from an initial, emerging understanding to full mastery and appropriation, instead of articulating “how much” students did.
- Transparency about meaningful quality standards: The rubrics above don’t clearly define the specific skills necessary for success. In order to really get a sense of what students have mastered, where they may struggle, and where they need to go next, we need to have a clearer sense of the sub-skills that make up writing proficiency- things like making an argument, using evidence, and considering an organizational structure that will make sense to the reader. In the first rubric, I reduce proficiency to three minor measures, and in the second rubric, I lump “English Content” in a big bucket. If we aren’t thoughtful and transparent about the standards and skills we’re aiming for we can’t help students achieve them. And if we don’t articulate what we’re looking for in highly specific ways, we can’t have meaningful conversations as professionals about helping students reach those goals. Good rubrics help us to be more clear, specific, and articulate about where we’re headed with students. Takeaway: Rubrics should define success in a clear and obvious way, including dividing larger skills into separate sub-skills.
- Scoring vs. Grading: I think one of Alfie Kohn’s big concerns is that rubrics are simply another way to grade. They’re a way to assign a pretty meaningless number to student achievement- a number that fundamentally only serves to reinforce students’ focus on extrinsic motivators. I think the rubrics above allow me to grade, or assign a number to student work, but they don’t do a good job of helping me see where a student is in a particular learning trajectory, which I’ll call scoring. Of course, most of us live in a world where we still have to give grades. What I think we can do in the meantime is emphasize students’ score levels and their growth while de-emphasizing grades. As best we can, I think we should assign grades that reflect that growth. Takeaway: Rubrics should do more than just assign students a number grade. They should show students where they are in their attempts to master a particular skill.
What might a good rubric look like- or at least one that’s on the way? I won’t reproduce the entire thing, since you’ll be staring at your screen for the next 30 minutes, but here’s part of a New Tech Network (in partnership with SCALE, among others) rubric for English/Language Arts Textual Analysis:
This rubric defines clear learning trajectories, or likely pathways of student skill development from emerging to advanced, allowing students and teachers to see growth. It more clearly separates the skill of writing a textual analysis into component parts, so we can see where students might struggle and where they might be doing well. In tandem, transparency about quality standards and a clear learning trajectory allow educators to define quality and how to achieve it- giving us support in how we think about student writing and clearly articulating quality for students. And they also allow us to simply score students, without summarily attaching a grade. I’d argue that, as professionals, we have to be able to define and discuss quality and our outcomes for students- or we’re not professionals.
If we want our rubrics to: 1) help educators have meaningful conversations about where students are in their own learning trajectory, 2) help educators determine where a student could go next, and 3) show students their own growth, we need good rubrics. But the beauty of good rubrics in turn is that they allow us to do all of the above.