A (Parent’s) Rant on Rubrics

This school year, I’m involved with our faculty development center’s “High Impact Teaching Academy.” Tomorrow, we focus our conversation on assessment, specifically on rubrics. After I replied to the questions for our discussion forum posting this week, I had to go on and write another one. Selections are below:

First, I think I’ve mentioned before that I come from a background as a middle school teacher and have transitioned into the role of a teacher educator. In this entire process, I’ve seen rubrics used for a variety of purposes. Early in my teaching career, I was introduced to the idea of rubrics with examples such as the “six traits” of writing analytic rubric and the MEAP’s holistic grading rubric. In each of these cases, I was unable to figure out exactly the right words to describe my discomfort with using these tools for assessment, even though I became more attuned to helping students figure out exactly what they need to do in order to move from, say, a 4 to a 5 on the scale.

Then, in grad school I was exposed to two professional texts that really changed my thinking on rubrics. The first was Bob Broad’s What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing and the second was Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. These two texts taught me a variety of things, two of which stick with me today as a teacher of writing:

  1. Our students are individual writers and, even in a common writing assignment, we need to recognize and respond to their differences.
  2. When students have rubrics as the only guide for writing instruction, much like a computer that is given the wrong command, students will only do exactly what we tell them to, leaving no space for writing as an act of discovery.

Second, another main idea that concerns me about rubrics in the broadest sense is that they can really be helpful when coupled with response. However, when they are only used as a way to “justify” a grade (in a sense, providing a CYA for the teacher), then that is a reprehensible use of assessment, and shows that there has been little to no actual instruction supporting the writing task or the individual writer.

Sample Rubric

In what ways does this help my daughter become a better writer?

For instance, take a peek at this rubric my daughter received on her essay last week. With all due respect to her teacher — who, of course, has dozens or perhaps even hundreds of assignments to grade each week — what does this tell me about my daughter’s performance as a writer?

There were no additional comments on the paper itself, and if I didn’t know anything about the teaching of writing, I would look at this as a parent and wonder how to help my child become a better writer because there is nothing on this sheet (or in the teacher’s non-comments) that helps me understand the difference between an “exceptionally strong” or “generally clear” point of view.

Fortunately, I do know a bit about teaching writing, but not all parents do. How do they help their children become better writers with “feedback” in the form of a rubric?

So, sorry to burst the rubric bubble the day before we plan to talk about them at the Academy. But, I figured it was better to get my rant out on blackboard before we met than to take up too much time talking about it tomorrow.

Thanks for listening.

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