My school system is piloting rubric-driven report cards. The general response from the dozen or so parents I have talked to this week about them has been, “I have no idea how my child is really doing.”
Rubrics reduce the skills and concepts taught in a class into smaller and more precise components that are supposed to be easier to evaluate.
On a rubrics report card, English, for example, is broken down into content, organization and style and language usage, each of which is assigned a numeric value. In math, the components are knowledge and understanding, investigating patterns, communications and reflection.
As a mother told me, her son was an A student in elementary school, but the rubrics suggest that he is now a C student or worse. But when she e-mailed the teachers, they assured her that her son was doing well.
In reading about rubrics for several hours this morning, I found that many school systems still provide letter grades with the rubrics because parents want them. I can understand why. They are familiar, they are simple and they can be understood without a three-page handout.
I understand the limits of the traditional A, B, C and D grading as it doesn’t communicate the standards being met. Using baseball as a comparison, is an A performance the pitcher for the Atlanta Braves or the one from the local high school team?
But we have gone from overly simplistic to overly complex. And there are no narratives on these report cards, no comments from the teachers in plain English saying that while Johnny needs work on sentence structure, he’s doing well in organization of ideas and is creative in his topics.
I know why there are no comments. It would probably take 24 hours for teachers to append written comments for every student in a single class, and these teachers have multiple sections.
As a writer, I am not sure that the question children should be asking in their writing is whether they met the rubrics, but whether their piece worked. The most affecting piece of writing may be the one that violates the organizational rubrics. (I once interviewed a teacher — whose students led the nation in verbal SAT scores for years — who had studied the top-scoring SAT writing samples. He found that the best essays often violated the standard rules of writing.)
I also wonder how much rubrics are open to interpretation by teachers and how much easier they really make grading.
Are we replacing one subjective measure for another, and creating a lot of unnecessary confusion in the process?
Alfie Kohn wrote a good critique of writing rubrics, suggesting that they do not improve student performance:
Studies have shown that too much attention to the quality of one’s performance is associated with more superficial thinking, less interest in whatever one is doing, less perseverance in the face of failure, and a tendency to attribute the outcome to innate ability and other factors thought to be beyond one’s control. To that extent, more detailed and frequent evaluations of a student’s accomplishments may be downright counterproductive. As one sixth grader put it, “The whole time I’m writing, I’m not thinking about what I’m saying or how I’m saying it. I’m worried about what grade the teacher will give me, even if she’s handed out a rubric. I’m more focused on being correct than on being honest in my writing.” In many cases, the word even in that second sentence might be replaced with especially. But, in this respect at least, rubrics aren’t uniquely destructive. Any form of assessment that encourages students to keep asking, “How am I doing?” is likely to change how they look at themselves and at what they’re learning, usually for the worse.
What all this means is that improving the design of rubrics, or inventing our own, won’t solve the problem because the problem is inherent to the very idea of rubrics and the goals they serve. This is a theme sounded by Maja Wilson in her extraordinary new book, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. In boiling “a messy process down to 4-6 rows of nice, neat, organized little boxes,” she argues, assessment is “stripped of the complexity that breathes life into good writing.” High scores on a list of criteria for excellence in essay writing do not mean that the essay is any good because quality is more than the sum of its rubricized parts. To think about quality, Wilson argues, “we need to look to the piece of writing itself to suggest its own evaluative criteria” – a truly radical and provocative suggestion.
Wilson also makes the devastating observation that a relatively recent “shift in writing pedagogy has not translated into a shift in writing assessment.” Teachers are given much more sophisticated and progressive guidance nowadays about how to teach writing but are still told to pigeonhole the results, to quantify what can’t really be quantified. Thus, the dilemma: Either our instruction and our assessment remain “out of synch” or the instruction gets worse in order that students’ writing can be easily judged with the help of rubrics.
Again, this is not a matter of an imperfect technique. In fact, when the how’s of assessment preoccupy us, they tend to chase the why’s back into the shadows. So let’s shine a light over there and ask: What’s our reason for trying to evaluate the quality of students’ efforts? It matters whether the objective is to (1) rank kids against one another, (2) provide an extrinsic inducement for them to try harder, or (3) offer feedback that will help them become more adept at, and excited about, what they’re doing. Devising more efficient rating techniques – and imparting a scientific luster to those ratings – may make it even easier to avoid asking this question. In any case, it’s certainly not going to shift our rationale away from (1) or (2) and toward (3).
Neither we nor our assessment strategies can be simultaneously devoted to helping all students improve and to sorting them into winners and losers. That’s why we have to do more than reconsider rubrics. We have to reassess the whole enterprise of assessment, the goal being to make sure it’s consistent with the reason we decided to go into teaching in the first place.