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Cult Of Pedagogy Rubrics For Essays

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See Mrs. Jones. She has a fantastic idea for a new assignment. It’s going to be challenging and engaging and fun. Before she can give this assignment to her students, Mrs. Jones needs to get a few things on paper. She starts by writing up a prompt. See Mrs. Jones smile as her fingers fly across the keyboard, crafting the language that describes what students will do.

Then it’s time to build a rubric. Watch as Mrs. Jones creates an empty table with four columns – one for each level of proficiency – and five rows that break down the areas that will be assessed. Four rows, five columns. Mrs. Jones prepares to fill all twenty cells.

See Mrs. Jones slump down in her chair.

If you’re like Mrs. Jones, you rely on densely packed analytic rubrics to assess student work. But creating these rubrics – trying to imagine every possible scenario that will result in an assignment being labeled as a 1, 2, 3 or 4, or whatever terminology might stand for those numbers – can be both soul-crushing and time-consuming.

Then, when it comes time to assess student work, you’re likely to find many assignments that don’t fit neatly into any one column. What’s worse, others demonstrate qualities you didn’t even anticipate, like the student who spelled everything perfectly but was lax on punctuation. Your “mechanics” section doesn’t have a place for that.

And do students even read these rubrics? Having been on the receiving end of multi-page, multi-cell rubrics stuffed to the gills with 9-point font, I would say no. I did not read all of those cells. I looked at the third and fourth columns, where expectations met and exceeded expectations were described, and I did everything I could to make my work satisfy those criteria. The other two columns got little more than a glance.

Might there be a better way? The answer is yes, and its name is the single-point rubric.

Instead of detailing all the different ways an assignment deviates from the target, the single-point rubric simply describes the target, using a single column of traits. It’s what you’d find at level 3 on a 4-point scale, the “proficient” column, except now it’s all by itself. On either side of that column, there’s space for the teacher to write feedback about the specific things this student did that either fell short of the target (the left side) or surpassed it (the right).

For some, this alternative might cause apprehension: does this mean more writing for the teacher? Possibly. If you’ve only ever used rubrics to highlight key features of a student’s work to justify their score, or worse, simply given the score without pointing to the language that made the difference, then the single-point rubric will require more from you. But when I used analytic rubrics, I ended up having to do a bunch of writing anyway, squeezing my comments into the cells to provide more specific feedback, or adding a long note at the end summarizing the factors that influenced the score.

With a single-point rubric, the farce of searching for the right pre-scripted language is over, leaving you free to describe exactly what this student needs to work on.

If you’re moving away from traditional grades, the single-point rubric is a perfect instrument for delivering specific feedback: The open columns on either side leave plenty of room to comment on exactly what this student needs to do to improve their work, or to pinpoint the ways they have gone above and beyond. And if you’d like to get more student input when creating rubrics, it’s even easier when you only have to craft language for the desired outcome, rather than the missteps.

Is there ever a need for a fully loaded, “hot mess” rubric? Only in cases where feedback is never part of the plan: when a piece of writing is going to be scored on a state assessment, for example, there may be a need to identify every level of performance. But again, the people using these rubrics aren’t interested in helping students learn and grow; their only goal is to score.

But a teacher aspires to more than that. And different aspirations require different tools. Let’s leave the hot mess rubric to the testing companies.

You and me and Mrs. Jones? We can do better.

Tags:assessment, feedback, rubrics

About The Author

Jennifer Gonzalez

A National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence/English Language Arts, Jennifer Gonzalez has been a middle school teacher and a college-level teacher of teachers. She now devotes herself full-time to curating and creating resources to help teachers make their work more effective and satisfying.


Gonzalez' Single Point Rubric

Only having to make a single, binary judgment on writing saves time because a teacher doesn't have to pine over too fine distinctions that become more dubious or arbitrary as the distinctions multiply. This problem is clearest when one must explain the difference between an essay that "earns" an 88 as opposed to an 87 or an 89, or even a 90. The single point rubric gets rid of most those judgments, which are summative, and focuses on formative judgments, the comments and feedback. In some significant ways, this rubric offers teachers who still use grades to simplify the assessment process and help students focus on feedback. And I think most, if not all, writing teachers would agree: we want our students to focus on our feedback, not grades. 

From Standards to Dimensions

A single point rubric is much easier to create with your students because the purpose of any rubric generating activity is: what does proficient mean for us? This is like asking students to define or talk about what makes "good writing," which is always a good discussion to have with them. But of course, being able to identify and articulate what good writing is and practicing such good writing are two different things. In part, they are different because it's not the writer who primarily determines what is good writing, it is the reader, which in most classrooms is the teacher. So even with a good use of a single point rubric, the assessment ecology of the classroom will still bend toward the teacher as standard maker and standard bearer. Students continue to play the "how do I please the teacher" game, or the "give her what she wants" game. To avoid this, I have used writing dimensions, instead of standards in my single point rubrics. So they are rubrics that do not identify "meets expectations" as much as they are ones that identify the dimensions of writing we are exploring and trying to understand. And the only way to do that understanding is to get observations (feedback) from multiple readers, colleagues and the teacher. 

So I shift the rubric from standards to dimensions. Rubric building activities I engage in with students ask this question: What dimensions of writing do we want to work on or improve? Notice, I'm changing the focus of the above rubrics (both) from describing what is proficient or meeting expectations to a dimension of writing that we can argue and disagree about. That we should and inevitably will disagree about, if we are human. Let's take that "Development" row in the Pittsburgh State rubric above. Gonzalez' single point rubric would use the "meets expectations" column as the defining point in one row of her rubric, that would then help her as the teacher write about her "concerns" and "evidence of exceeding standards" for that dimension. Again, notice that her rubric focuses on pleasing the teacher, and only acknowledges her judgments. 

In my single point rubric, the point identified is a dimension of writing that is not a standard but a dimension, a question about the writing, in a sense. So here's how their standard and my dimension might look next to each other: 

  • Their Standard: Evidence and reasoning are adequate to support claims. The assignment is complete. 
  • My Dimension: How does evidence and reasoning support claims adequately? How complete is the draft?
Notice that the dimension encourages readers (judges) to explain their observations and demands that multiple readers read and provide observations. It also does not assume that there is a standard by which we can judge or rank any dimension of writing. Sally's essay and Jose's are simple different instances of discourse, and so should be responded to on their own terms. That's what we focus on.  

What's the advantage to mine over other rubrics? I think, the biggest is that it doesn't penalize subaltern discourses, multilingual students, students of color, or working class students who come to our classrooms with discourses that do not match well with the academic ones that tend to be a part of the standards on all rubrics (except mine). In fact, it uses them to create discussion, disagreement, and productive dissonance in the reading of student writing. So does this mean that my dimension-based rubric is not teaching some standardized version of English? No, we cannot avoid that to some degree, but we can be more critical and conscious of that standardizing in our judgments and rubrics as only one perspective, one reading, which I believe a dimension-based single point rubric does. Ultimately, focusing on dimensions in our rubrics and not standards moves our classroom assessment ecologies toward antiracist ends. 

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