Rubrics and Some Useful Links

Unless they happen to be Superman or Superwoman, teachers – and beginning teachers especially – have to make tradeoffs in terms of what goals they will concentrate on each school year.  Teachers with multiple preps need to make even more tradeoffs.  For me, over the last 4 years, I concentrated on researching content and designing lessons to share that content with my students more than I concentrated on designing assessments.  I relied more on objective tests and holistic essay and project grading than anything else.  This year, one of my goals is to concentrate on designing better assessments.  To be clear, I will still rely on multiple choice tests and holistic essay rubrics, particularly in my AP classes, since this is how the actual AP exam is graded, but I do want to make some changes and additions to my assessment system.

In a previous post, I wrote about some of the problems associated with projects and alternative assessments, and I mentioned how rubrics were so important when it came to assessing projects.  As I begin teaching in a 1:1 environment, with even more kinds of assignments and projects available to me, I know that I will rely more on rubrics than ever before.  As such, I’ve been reading a great deal about rubrics of late.  While much of what I’ve read, I knew or could intuit, it’s always nice to remind yourself from time to time of the information you may have already known but have somehow forgotten along the way.

Rubrics can take a variety of forms, from holistic to analytic, and they can be weighted or not.  At one time or another, I’ve used them all, but as I mentioned above, I’ve tended to rely more on holistic rubrics in the past.  This year, my goal is to add more analytic rubrics to my assessment system.

No matter their form, rubrics offer a number of advantages.  Here are some of the best benefits of using rubrics for both teachers and students as I see it.

  • They increase validity and reliability while decreasing bias.
  • They help teachers identify the most important components of any given lesson or unit of study, thereby clarifying for the teacher what the ultimate goals are.  Oftentimes, teachers (maybe history teachers in particular) can get too caught up in the details.
  • They help teachers set reasonable and appropriate expectations.  The performance of the student is then placed on a continuum from exceptional to not meeting expectations.
  • They help students take ownership of their own learning and assess their own work since they know from the get-go what an “exceptional” piece of work looks like.
  • They allow for more specific feedback, which in turn allows students a better chance of improvement in the future.  They know exactly what they did well and what they need to improve upon.
  • They improve the quality of the final product and thus the quality of learning.
  • Over time, time spent on assessment decreases for the teacher.

It all sounds so great, right?.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I still struggle with rubrics.  One of my biggest issues is simply designing them well.  There are a lot of great “rubric makers” out there that allow teachers to download already made rubrics and tweak them to their liking or create them from scratch. You can find some of them here, here, and here.  Yet creating a rubric is one thing; creating a well-designed rubric is quite another.  I find myself either being too loose in my criteria or too strict.  Too loose and I’m stuck defending why I gave a student the grade I did.  Too strict and the student has no room for independent thinking or creativity.  There’s nothing worse than grading 20 projects that all look exactly the same.  Talk about boring!

A second problem I face is generally an issue with holistic rubrics more than analytic rubrics.  When using holistic rubrics, I find myself more often than not stuck between two numbers.  AP history essays are graded using holistic rubrics that range from 1 to 9.  I generally find myself wanting to grade a student’s essay as a 6.5 rather than a 6 or a 7.  Now, of course, I can give a 6.5, but the AP reader cannot.  So then, I have to explain to my students that, while I gave them a 6.5, they should probably assume the reader would only give them a 6 and not a 7.  This is not an insurmountable problem, but it’s frustrating all the same.

Finally, there is the ever-present issue of time.  Research suggests that teachers who use rubrics consistently year after year eventually take less time to assess student work than teachers who do not use rubrics consistently or at all.  Eventually, it becomes second nature to create and then use rubrics.  Like most things of worth, however, there is an initial period of time when teachers first begin using rubrics on a regular basis when they are spending more time on assessment than they would without using rubrics.  (This is assuming, of course, that the teacher is taking the time to create and use well-designed rubrics as opposed to slapping one together in 10 minutes.)  There is a learning curve that teachers face when using rubrics as they figure out whether to use a holistic or analytic rubric for s specific assignment, whether to weight the rubric or not, how detailed to make the rubric, etc.  Then, actually using the rubric takes time as well.  Is this essay an 8 or a 7, and why?  Should this students get a 4 for the design of their model or a 3, and what is my justification?  Rubrics take away some subjectivity but not all.

Now, as I was reading, I actually came across a rubric to assess rubrics!  Go figure. This is to help teachers decide if they are really designing and using rubrics well. Here is the link to the PDF document which includes this rubric if you are interested.  It might be interesting to use the rubric the first few times you create a new rubric.  Of course, this takes more of what we are all short of – time!



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