I keep thinking of throwing rubrics out the window. Most are ill conceived because the correct audience has never been considered. The fatal flaw is one inherent in the design: rubrics are for teachers, not students.
“Demonstrates a comprehensive, thoughtful grasp of the text.” When students report that they lose, throw away, or never even look at the rubrics I provide, I realize that rubrics typically add more confusion than lucidity. “Provides a variety of sentence types and uses precise, descriptive language.” They are usually noise that gets in the way of the task students need to achieve. “Includes specific textual details.” Look at the scoring guide for the CAHSEE. “States and maintains a position, authoritatively defends that position with precise and relevant evidence.” In seeking to define, we teachers use all kinds of phrasings that don’t make sense to anyone without a college degree and/or several years of background in education.
Does that make rubrics bad? No. Does that make them useless? No. Does that change how we should approach rubrics? Yes.
Rubrics should be clear enough to remind teachers why a grade was assigned. Rubrics should be technical enough to allow teachers to direct students for further instruction. Rubrics should, most likely, be shown to students after the assignment is graded, if at all. Rubrics should help teachers be consistent and know exactly what to look for in student work.
Thinking from the point of view of a student, I want to read as little as possible. I know what I need to do for the assignment, I just want to bounce forth and start doing it. Lists are good for that, but boxes with descriptions of what the different grades look like are worthless.
Perhaps even better for students would be scaled examples. I recently handed out A, B, C, D, and F responses to short writings I assign (quickwrites). Walking students through the examples, I hoped that they would use this as a way to guide the quickwrites for the current piece of literature under discussion.
Writing By Design
What if essay assignments didn’t have rubrics as we know them, but a gathering of scaled paragraphs from a similar writing assignment? Maybe these examples constitute a Web site teachers put together. Maybe a few teachers can work to put this together and other teachers can reference them, directing their students to those sites. Maybe it’s a packet teachers give out at the beginning of the year, adding new exemplars as the year goes on.
Once students see what I understand a 95% to be, we can work on categorizing why that piece of writing deserves that grade. We work backwards to create a rubric, but since it’s based on real examples, those phrases like “relates the real world to the story” make more sense and are genuine.
So maybe rubrics are backwards. They certainly fail to help the majority of the students I’ve ever had. Most students dutifully keep those rubrics in their binder, but are nowhere near their writing space, never to impact the writing produced.
If students worked from exemplars as a way to figure out why one piece of writing is better than another, we might get closer to students figuring things out for themselves. This could allow them to create a set of criteria that they can put to use because they’ve internalized the descriptions.
Are your students using the rubrics you hand out? Really?
P.S. Thanks for getting me thinking about this, Ben. And maybe I should put up a folder full of all rubrics I have; they’d be Word or Excel documents. Would that be helpful to anyone?