Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Real Purpose of Rubrics

Mabry and Wilson tell us that rubrics have failed to live up to their promises of fair, reliable, and consistent evaluations. The kinds of rubrics they describe—which stifle writing, force it to be contrived, or ignore the creativity of the writer—must be those “one size fits all” rubrics that accompany commercial curriculum materials. Perhaps their mistake was to equate rubrics and grading. The real purpose of rubrics is to stretch a writer to try something different and see what happens. It’s ultimately a way to create a more confident writer who will have received peer and teacher feedback on the effectiveness of his/her writing and will be more likely to reproduce what worked in the next piece of writing.

I agree that to be a useful tool, a rubric must clearly identify what each criteria is but also what it means. A rubric with excellent criteria but vague descriptors will only end up confusing students: it’s nothing more than a tool to play “Gotcha!” with kids. On the other end a 14-page fully explicit rubric is unrealistic and ridiculous. So how do we create rubrics that clarify expectations and demystify the complexity of writing? How do we use rubrics so they not only provide a language for talking about what good writing looks like but also help students understand and assess their own performance in order to improve their writing?

First, we need to be realistic. Which trait or criteria needs to be emphasized? Which traits/criteria are the “no excuse” criteria that everyone is expected to demonstrate? I liked the way Janice focused her rubric on no more that 3 or 4 traits, knowing which ones were most important for the purpose of the writing. Her rubric also left room for some self-evaluation and creativity, which Wilson would certainly approve.

Secondly, we need to teach students the meaning of the rubric, using student exemplars to show clear expectations. Students know what excellent work looks like. They can also tell you when a text lacks so much substance that it stinks. Those are the 4’s and the 1’s on our rubric’s scale: they’re the no-brainers. That’s why I also like Zach and Janice’s idea of not even showing the 4’s or the 1’s. Instead, we need to spend the most time and energy teaching about the 2’s and 3’s: the average stages of the rubric where most of our students sit, stuck in the rut of the limited writing skills they possess. This is the true key to unlocking the hidden talent in writers by nudging them to try something new, something slightly better. Through self-assessment they will see how they stretched themselves just a little further, which is key to increasing students’ writing skills. When students clearly understand not only what good writing looks like but how theirs compares to the criteria, AND how to get there baby step by baby step, they will be able to improve their writing.

So the answer to Wilson’s questions about rubrics comes down to the purpose and the process for using the rubric:
Purpose: Stretch yourself and practice what good writers do.

  • Look at exemplars, concentrating on the 2’s and 3’s.
  • Get student input in writing the rubric’s criteria.
  • Use the rubric for self-assessment, peer-conferencing and teacher feedback.
  • Reflect on what worked well in students’ writing so they can replicate it next time.
I'm not sure if this is fully reconciled with Wilson's stance on rubrics but it leaves me more confident that rubrics are indeed the right tool to help kids make progress in writing.

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