My career as a teacher began way before the introduction of Rubrics to education. As an English teacher I was required to assess students’ writing and convert that assessment into a grade for the student. Back in the 70’s the most progressive grading method I was exposed to was giving a grade over another grade (85/95). The top grade was for the piece and the bottom grade was for the effort exhibited. The entire grade was almost totally subjective, and dependent on the good will of the teacher to attempt to be as objective as possible. I always considered the effort grade a way to clear the conscience.
I thought that this subjective method of grading was pretty much gone until I had a recent conversation with my daughter about her college writing class. It would seem her professor was old school and assigned grades on assignments using the holistic method of just reading and assigning a grade. Little explanation, or justification for the grade was presented. I began to wonder how many educators still employ these methods. I have seen research that indicated most kids do not read or respond to comments on papers left by instructors, but whatever was the basis for any assessed grade should be explained somewhere. We often tell students it is more about the learning than it is about the grade, yet we give the grade without an explanation, so how can learning take place? Of course time, or a lack of it, is often the reason for this, and that is a factor to be dealt with. As a former English teacher I know my visceral reaction to those who argue that class size should not matter; the more kids we have the less time we get.
Again, back in the day, I would underline mistakes without comment. My intent was to have students attempt to figure out why segments were underlined on their own. I even provided collaboration time so they could check with a “study buddy”. I would then meet with them for a brief face-to-face meeting for feedback and comments. This was time-consuming, but effective for some, not all. It was still difficult to objectify what was, so obviously, a subjective assessment. Can tone outweigh a few grammatical mistakes? Are two simple sentences worth less than a compound, or even more a complex sentence? Does the grasp of the content overshadow the poor sentence structure? Was I being consistent for every paper from each of my students? Were all papers being assessed equally? I was rarely satisfied with the answers to these questions that kept popping up in my head with every graded assignment.
I remember the first time I heard the term “Rubric” in a department meeting. I had no idea what it was, but I did not want that to be found out through my questioning, so I sat quietly until the conclusion of the meeting. My mistaken impression was that we were to break down the components that we were grading for, and assign a rating scale for each. That seemed simple enough. I have come to learn that many educators hold this simplistic view today. It is not truly what I came to understand as to what a Rubric is.
We were, as a department, giving a grade level assignment, so to make sure that the assessment of the assignment was as fair and objective as possible, we were to develop rubrics that all concerned teachers could live by. That would also enable anyone in the department to grade any paper with consistency. We discussed what was to be graded. What each section was to be worth. We described in detail what the top of the scale should include for each section, as well as the middle, and the bottom. We even defined what specifically constitutes a zero paper in the event that we got one.
I found the process in developing these Rubrics eye-opening. For the first time, I had a clear understanding of what it was I was looking for with specific guidelines and values. It was no longer a gut thing. We developed the entire list of Rubrics, arranged them in boxes, and placed the entire elaborate display horizontally on a single piece of paper. This was going to be great. I would include this with each of the assignment packets, and all would be clear to each of my students.
That clarity never came to my kids. I failed to recognize that what took me time to analyze, digest, and appreciate with understanding, only occurred over a period of time while developing the rubrics. That experience could not translate to reading a document, no matter how elaborate, or eye appealing it might be. I realized after the first class which I tried this in, that I needed a better strategy. I needed to spend more time up front, so I could use less time and get better results on the back-end.
My plan was simple: I was going to develop the Rubrics with my students. I reasoned that the process that worked for me, should work for them as well. I knew where I wanted to take them, because I worked out the rubrics already. I needed to guide them through it, taking their ideas, while explaining not only my expectations, but also what my means of assessment would be in determining their grade. They became part of the process and took ownership of the rubrics. I made some small adjustments based on their suggestions.
From that day forward, they had an understanding of Rubrics that lasted. It actually gave some means of control to the students. I was as limited to adhering to the Rubrics as the students were. It was a pact to be honored by all parties. The Students had a clear understanding of expectations on the assignment. They understood what would be graded and how it would be counted.
Some might argue that Rubrics enabled students to do less work to attain a minimum-passing grade. Rubrics might limit a few students in some ways to go beyond the rubrics. I did not find that to be true.
I know as an adult I want to know what is expected of me in given situations. As an adult, if I am to be judged on something, I want to know on what am I being judged and in what way. Kids should be afforded the same answers and it should not matter what subject in school this happens. This is how we learn. Is learning not what education is about?