Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Unkept Promise of Rubrics

In ELA classrooms, the rubric reigns over writing. Yet, I am wondering if others also feel that rubrics aren’t truly as helpful as we make them out to be?

When I was thirteen-years-old, I had a hard enough time prying bubble gum from my sneakers let alone untangling the language in a rubric. And even if I could untangle it, what would I have done with it? Would it have made me a better writer?

And now I wonder, does a rubric make a student a better writer?

Consider these two variations on the left from the same slot (Organization) on the rubric for Pennsylvania Writing Assessment:

While the bottom example has been rewritten as kid-friendly, it is no more helpful to students (and this is key) than the example at the top. 

How does either version help kids? Reminding students to have a beginning, middle, and end is not a bad idea...but is it helpful? Does it make or break a student’s ability to grow as a writer? Seriously, is this the guidance parents are clamoring for whenever their child receives a writing assignment? In education, we scratch our heads wondering why our students don’t grow; yet, when we introduce words like sophisticated to describe the difference between a 3 and 4 we offer little evidence as to what sophisticated means. 

A consequence is that our assessment of writing becomes subjective under the guise of making expectations transparent and concrete.

We treat the domains on rubrics like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart treated pornography: “I know it when I see it.” That colloquialism isn’t helpful to anybody, yet it is very much alive in ELA. Frustrating, isn’t it?
Why Aren't Rubrics Effective?
Constructed to rank and sort, rubrics have been leaned on as guidelines for the end of the process. The time of distribution does not make up for the absence of engagement. Rubrics send the message that good writing has very specific features. Aim for these features and we’ll let you know how you did later. Just look at any state assessment.

This standard fare of rubric is ineffectual in the classroom. Features such as organization become targets to hit, a finish line, and in many cases a brick wall. Writing to the rubric, turns the rubric into their audience. Students do not understand what is asked of them in a rubric any more than they understand comments in the margins of essays. For example, writing “Be Concise!” in the margin helps no one unless the teacher demonstrates how one writes in a concise manner.

When rubrics are not effective it is because they became scoring guidelines first, writing guidelines second, and conversation (mentoring) guidelines last--if at all. Rubrics, too often, are dead ends for students because the feedback comes at the end of the process and that is too late.

The Scoring Trap
Even though our state assessments insist on modelling it, avoid using the rubric to score.

The state assessment arena is much different than writing in the classroom or the real world of writers. Yet, teachers continue to debate how to best use a rubric to score according the presence of or absence of evidence from the noted domains

The kinds of conversations I have engaged in sounded like:
  • “if a student has three areas marked a 3 and one area a 4... is that more like a that an 85% an 86%...but I really like what they did; could I still grade it with an A-?" 
  • "if we treat the numbers as points and add up the 1s and 2s and 3s and 4s and divide by the number of possible points according to the number of categories..."
In my opinion, these conversations were misguided. I chased the score and lost sight of what positive actions could be taken with conversations, mentoring, and modeling.

And so I am left wondering--is the score on the rubric evidence of student growth or is the score on the rubric evidence of a teacher's effort? Are we scoring with rubrics for the student or are we scoring with rubrics to cover our asses?

This scoring trap is exacerbated when we learn that state assessments are scored holistically--as in, this is what a “4” looks like. Scorers literally create piles of paper (4s and 3s and 2s and 1s) while teachers in classrooms scrutinize rubric summaries (re: sophisticated) and mark errors on student writing in pursuit of the justification of a given grade. When teachers try to shoehorn a score into a rubric, we turn writing into a transaction--if you do this, then we will reward you with that.

And this, indeed, is the trap. Too much writing has become transactional in our schools. The consequence is that students do not have enough experience with expressive writing because expressive writing is the development of thinking and the development of thinking is much more difficult to score...even though it is much more valuable developmentally.

Academic Wallpaper
Perceived as a measure of a job well done, some schools encourage (or require) teachers to display the state rubric in all ELA classrooms--academic wallpaper to make us feel good about ourselves.

How can we transform the rubric--or our use of it--into learning and evidence of learning? How do we turn this around?

Use a part of a rubric, not all of a rubric.
If you can’t justify abandoning the state model or if you are precluded from using anything but a standard district model, teach it in parts.

For example, display only the Organization column. As the days and weeks pass, teach students strategies within each concept. For organization, we would focus on leads, transitions, and conclusions in addition to studying multiple structures. Exploring mentor texts to uncover how different writers organize different types of text--depending on their purpose--takes time. There is no reason to rush the process.

Some of the best teaching and coaching I have experienced has been through a part-part-whole philosophy. Think of dancing lessons or yoga. We learn a series of steps or positions in stages. We learn to improve in increments and with support. We improve when our instructor talks with us, guides us, and asks us questions. They do not hand us a form with gradients of performance circled or attributed to a score and say, “see you when it’s over.”

Use the piece of the rubric to be the topic of conversation over a lengthy period of time. Hold professional texts up to the piece of the rubric highlighted in your class and talk about it. Make time for your students to be able to write and talk about it. Let them practice on mentor texts and let them practice on their own drafts in nonjudgmental (un-scored) situations. Open up your notebook and ask the class to have a conversation about a rough piece of your writing--pull the goals of the rubric domain into the conversation. Ask your students to brainstorm what you might do next as a writer to accomplish the organizational goal on that one slot in the rubric. I am confident our conversations will be richer and more meaningful for our students. Learning will exceed the standard set by the rubric.

And do these things again and again and again.

Assessing a part of the whole
If we had to use a rubric, could we use one column today and a separate column another week when the student was ready to move on?

Could one student’s rubric grow at a different rate than another student’s rubric? According to Janet Emig, writing is a natural process and everyone grows at differing rates. Why deliver the same doses of a writing rubric to all kids at the same rate on the same day?

For example, couldn’t we focus on organization for several different drafts--encouraging ongoing feedback during the process--and when a student articulates the elements and strategies of organization add another component of the rubric--something they are ready for. They all do not have to move through the domains of the rubric in the same order at the same rate. When it comes to writing, students are not going to be in the same place as their classmates. I have learned that student growth does not often happen by our watch.

Asking students to highlight or explain their organization reveals more about what they are learning than a teacher serving as a judge at the end of the process. In the example to the left, a student demonstrates her learning.

I use this model at all stages of the process--and rarely at the end. I try to instill a sense that this type of rubric is more about the writer and less about the piece of writing. These writing moves are appropriate and measurable irrespective of the writing assignment. We can return to these skills again again throughout the year.

While I did not have to score anything, I did score her ability to show me what she learned. Literally, all I was looking for was the student's ability to show me a writing skill found in her writing. 

Additionally, I confer with students about their rubric and pick their brain about their choices. Students understand that these conversations contribute to my assessment of their work. We keep the conversation alive throughout the process as the student continues to develop as a writer. 

Another element of the re-imagined rubric is providing space for reflections and explanations. This particular rubric was built around only one domain: organization.
Sending the message that students are not just plugging in correct answers engages them as writers. At each step, I want students thinking, writing, and talking about writing. 

I share these rubrics through Google Docs (Google Classroom makes everyone their own individual copy) and most students will type their responses and reflections right into the shared document.

Using parts of a rubric, and building upon them, serves each student where he/she is today.

Use the comprehensive rubric at the end of a marking period
If a comprehensive rubric must be used in its entirety, ask students to write reflection letters about what they see in their own writing as it pertains to the classroom rubric. Perhaps students would point out topics not yet covered, but topics of concern in their own work. Students might be able to go back into their own writing and demonstrate their growth. Also, it is much more valuable for a student to explain their growth. Put another way: ask students to explain how they believe they moved from a 4 in organization to a 6 in organization. What did he/she do?

A final thought on scoring and writing
Resist the urge to see the numbers on a rubric as reflective of a score.

Distance the score from the prose. Move the score as far away as you can. If you must score something, score the process in a portfolio at the end of the marking period or isolated skills within an early draft. Score their ability to demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses as a writers and what they would like to do about it. Score the reasons behind their upcoming goals. Score their articulation of how they feel they improved. Score what is there instead of what is not there. Score it in conversation in lieu of or in addition to writing. Discuss the score. Guide them. We do not need to score students in a private vacuum. If they can’t take the feedback in person with a compassionate human being what makes us believe that they can take, process, and understand on their own what we mark on a rubric by ourselves at our desk?

Ultimately, how we use rubrics (if at all) should come down to the following question for our students to answer: did it make you a better writer?

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