Rubrics Rule (or, Rules for Rubrics) 

Rubric Revolution

We can all agree that rubrics rock – but why?

Teachers rave about the ease and speed with which they can score assignments when using a rubric, as well as the “armor” that rubrics provide when they find themselves explaining grades to students (or justifying grades to testy parents).

Students, on the other hand, report feeling far more comfortable knowing the specific criteria that they’ll be graded on. They’re happy to receive a healthy dose of transparency.

If we generalize these sentiments to research that has far more muscle – that is, the power of timely feedback and the importance of clearly communicated expectations – well, it’s easy to see why rubrics make a good deal of sense when they’re used appropriately. That means making good on these all-important rules for rubrics:


1. Clarity is king!

Rubrics draw the bulk of their power from the clarity they offer as far as assignment expectations are concerned – for both the teachers assigning the work and the students completing it!


2. Avoid the cookie cutter! Be your own cookie!

There is an awful misconception that universal rubrics (either across all classrooms in a department, or all assignments) are a good thing. To clarify – clear and consistent expectations are good – but cookie-cutter rubrics are not! Choose your rubric’s criteria purposefully based on the assignment at hand, your lesson’s intended learning outcomes, and the needs and skills of your students. (See rule #5 for more on this!)


3. Purposeful construction!

Part of what makes rubrics purposeful is the manner in which they are designed. The two most popular options – holistic and analytic rubrics.

Holistic rubrics (e.g. a 6-point rubric that lists a slew of writing descriptors and allows a teacher to pin a ballpark score, such as a “4,” to an assignment) are popularly used for standardized tests. They are reliable when it comes to grading quickly and when it comes to training scorers and seeing consistent results (…considering that standardized tests are often graded “reliably” by individuals without college degrees speaks volumes about the power of holistic rubrics…). If you’re looking for a good way to grade that stack of 125 summer reading essays, the holistic rubric might be the best way to go.

Analytic rubrics provide a good deal more detail regarding each skill being assessed, and typically provide a point-total to be earned for each respective skill. For instance, where a 6-point holistic rubric may score an essay a “4,” an analytic rubric might score the same essay a “6” on grammar and mechanics, a “5” on integrating textual evidence, and a “3” on connective thinking. The difference? An analytic rubric provides far greater detail – for students seeking to improve their work, and for teachers striving to assess specific skills while gathering data to effectively personalize future instruction. The disadvantage? These are a bit more time consuming – to create and to score – when compared with their holistic counterparts.

Some food for thought: If you’re preparing students for CollegeBoard’s AP English Exam, should you score their rubrics using CollegeBoard’s 9-point holistic rubric (…designed for speed and reliability – meaning, you’ll be able to grade your kids’ essays quickly and you’ll likely give them the same score that CollegeBoard’s graders would…), OR, should you opt for an analytic rubric that provides significantly greater clarity for students with regard to the assignment’s expectations and their specific strengths and weaknesses?

The answer, in my mind, seems obvious. Let students anonymously score their peers using the 9-point CollegeBoard rubric. After a little calibration using scored samples released from CollegeBoard, your kiddos will be scoring with impeccable accuracy – taking full advantage of what the holistic rubric was designed to do! You can even repeat this process twice to ensure that the writer receives a consistent score from both peer-graders. If the score varies by more than one point, allow a third peer-reader to score the draft. Then, collect a copy for yourself – and score it with an analytic rubric. Provide students the in-depth feedback they need in order to grow as writers, and in order to be successful on the exam. (Not to mention that you’ll even be able to bypass the universal AP English headache of trying to artificially curve students’ scores on a holistic rubric designed to withhold 9s!)


4. Weigh your criteria!

Consider a rubric that has been scored as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 4.08.36 PM

Should this essay earn a “3” – which translates to a letter grade? To a “B” (presuming a 3 is a “B” on a 4-point scale, where a 4 is an “A”…)?

OR, should this essay earn a 12 out of 16 possible points – a 75% (…in other words, less than a “B”…)?

The answer: It depends on your purpose. Consider the nuances.

If you’ll be turning a “3” into a “B,” you’re sending the message to students that a “4” is an “A” – which may or may not be perceived as within the ability of all students. Likewise, this scoring protocol is somewhat inflated – and has what I think of as “round edges” (i.e. an inherent artificial curve on students’ work, with the lowest possible grade, a “1,” equaling a “D”). Should a student who scores a “1” on any piece of criteria still be able to earn upwards of a B / B+? If your purpose is to reward effort, then yes. If your expectation is that not all students will be able to achieve the criteria detailed in “3” and “4,” then yes. (But if that’s the case – perhaps that criteria should be revisited?)

A popular solution to this headache is a “grading scale” where students’ scores on the rubric are then placed on a range – e.g. a “3.75 to a 4 equates to a 100%,” and so on. This works, but it’s duct tape on a larger problem.

Conversely, if you choose to give a student who has scored 3’s across the board with a 75%, you’re sending a different message… In short, that 4’s are the expectation. This heightens rigor, but obviously, can be detrimental to students’ grades if not used with appropriate expectations and criteria. This protocol is especially effective if revisions of “final drafts” are permitted until students are comfortable with their writing (and their grades).

Both systems work – as long as they’re couched in an appropriate context, and as long as the scoring system is clarified from the onset.

But before we move on, consider this tweak:

Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 4.11.05 PM

By adding different weights to different pieces of criteria, the rubric serves a different and more specific purpose! When all scores default to “4,” the message is: “Your ability to double-check your grammar is as important as your ability to make brilliant inter-textual, evidence-based connections.” In contrast, reweighted rubric above places a significant emphasis on “connective thinking” and “using textual evidence,” while capping the maximum number of achievable “grammar points” to three. Here, a student who scored consistently down the third column would earn 21 out of 27 possible points – earning a 78%.

Ah. That makes so much sense, my brain is tingling.


5. Personalize that rubric!

Next-generation teacher evaluation models place a major emphasis on differentiation and on the personalization of student learning. For instance, the “assessment” portion of Danielson’s “Framework For Teaching” aligns the following criteria with highly effective teaching:

“Students indicate that they clearly understand the characteristics of high-quality work, and there is evidence that students have helped establish the evaluation criteria.

The results of asking students to invest themselves in the evaluation criteria are as profound as we might expect them to be – but how can we implement this without sacrificing hours of instructional time? (I’ve seen some amazing lessons where teachers prompt students to design rubrics from scratch using collaborative Google Docs – but, lo and behold, there are far more efficient ways to garner student participation to this end!)

Consider how easy and powerful the addition of a blank component – to be filled in by students prior to beginning the assignment, perhaps on the day it’s assigned, after reflecting on their personal strengths and weaknesses. It might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 4.13.30 PM

Or, consider simply leaving the weights of each component blank – to be filled in by students. As such, a student would have the freedom to place a greater emphasis on “voice” (a maximum of, say, 12 earnable points – instead of 4). That might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 4.14.28 PM

A little creativity, coupled with the realization that rubrics are – like teaching – both an art and a science, can yield truly brilliant, practical, and effective results!


6. Grade it fast!

Take full advantage of the enhanced grading speed that rubrics provide! Not only will you feel much better after you burn through that stack of essays – but your students will reap the benefits of semi-immediate feedback. This is very important!

Now, let me add that I presently have a stack of essays sitting beside me, and that I understand that “grade it fast” is much easier said than done.Rubric Cube

To that end, I have several suggestions.

(#1) Try productivity hacks, such as the Pomodoro Technique. (This is the technique I’ll be using to sail through these papers.)

(#2) If you dig the Pomodoro Technique, or are simply interested in additional time-saving productivity hacks for teachers, check out Jay Meadows’ “Time Hacking For Teachers.” You won’t be disappointed!

(#3) Check out TeachArgument’s awesome rubric bundle, which includes multiple variations (as discussed in this blog) AND the coolest peer-editing exercise ever: THE RUBRIC CUBE!


related posts:

Close Reading and Rhetorical Analysis of Kanye’s “Hurricane”

Close Reading and Rhetorical Analysis of Luke Combs’ “Forever After All”

The TeachArgument Roadmap: Engage Your Students All Year

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