Commentary and Criticism about the National Education Association
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"Rubrics provide students with a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Students have concrete directions about what makes a good science project, a good persuasive writing piece, [a good musical composition], etc. ... “
Rubrics to the Rescue
“Issues to Consider: Rubrics Work!”
National Education Association
"… for the most part so shrill and complicated that only those who worship the failings and merits of this composer with equal fire, which at times borders on the ridiculous, could find pleasure in it.”
Review of Beethoven’s ground-breaking Third Symphony Eroica (using a rubric?)
THESIS OF THIS BLOG POST: Rubrics produce exactly what you expect.
If you are a teacher reading this post, you already know what a rubric is. For those not in education, a rubric is basically a set of expectations that we give students for completing an assignment. According to supporters of this form of evaluation, specification of clear expectations is one of its greatest strengths. The kids know exactly what they are supposed to do.
Sounds like a great idea, right?
I see this “positive” aspect of rubrics in a completely different way. For me, that so-called strength is actually a debilitating weakness.
Why do I say this?
Do you know what you get when you tell students exactly what they are supposed to do?
Nine out of ten times you get exactly what you told them to do.
From my 20 years of personal experience as a teacher I can confidently say:
Rubrics discourage creativity.
THE PROBLEM WITH RUBRICS: Two supporting points of view.
On a recent Tom Wood’s Show podcast (I think it was called Dissident Historians), the guest related a story about his experience grading AP history test essays. He was required to follow a rubric which established a grading scale from 0-9. One particular essay (which he still remembers some 20 years later) was not only well-written but was also very unique in its perspective.
He felt that it easily deserved a score of 9. Unfortunately, according to the specifications of the rubric, he was required to assign it a mere 7.
The problem with rubrics identified by Tom’s guest is still here today. In “Why I dislike rubrics in my classes,” Rebecca J. Hogue delves even further into this issue.
Here is what she had to say in her December 10, 2017 article:
“[Rubrics] change the behavior of students – causing them to focus on what is necessary to ‘make the grade’, rather than the internal motivation of excellence for excellence sake. They also take away an aspect of learner creativity – as the students then focus their assignments on meeting the rubric requirements rather than on making an excellent product out of their projects.”
HELD HOSTAGE TO THE RUBRIC: A paragraph example.
Take a look at the following paragraph writing rubric.
Now imagine that one of your students submits a perfectly written paragraph which scores 4 in each category. It has a main idea topic sentence, three supporting sentences, a restatement in the concluding sentence and perfect grammar.
Its all in there.
But guess what?
That paragraph is just about the most boring, unimaginative, run-of-the-mill, unimpressive, plain piece of writing that you have ever encountered in all of your many years as an educator.
It bugs you, but you have no choice. You still have to give this student 12 out of 12 - 100%.
But you know what makes this even worse?
The next paragraph you read is brilliantly written. Its entertaining, funny, engaging, clever … but there are several grammatical errors.
Sticking by the rubric, this particular student only gets 11 out of 12 possible points –a mere 92%.
That’s right – you are being held hostage to the rubric.
THE RUBRIC CONUNDRUM: Creativity is outside the bounds of the expected.
By definition, a rubric cannot properly assess a novel or creative idea.
Think about it.
Rubrics specify expectations – that is why people tout them as a fair way to assess student work. But also by definition, creativity is something outside the bounds of the expected.
History is replete with examples of creative geniuses whose accomplishments ran counter to the accepted norms of the societies in which they lived.
Their achievements were, essentially, acts of defiance against what was expected.
How do you best judge the work of a creative genius?
Should you use a rubric???
Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, Eroica, was considered “shrill and complicated” to a 19th century critic’s rubric.
Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which “caused a riot at its premiere” was considered “the work of a madman” to a 20th century critic’s rubric.
Are you still all in favor of rubrics???
CONCLUSION: Submit the fake rubric to administration …
I can certainly see how rubrics might be useful for grading certain basic assignments. And I can also understand why in her article “Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning” Heidi Goodrich Andrade says that they:
1. “… make assessing student work quick and efficient”
2. “… help teachers justify to parents and others the grades that they assign to students “
But having admitted that, no one can deny that rubrics restrict creativity by their very nature.
So how do I personally solve this problem in my classroom?
First I make up a fake rubric that I pretend to use. I submit this fake rubric to my administration at the end of the year when they need evidence that I have done authentic assessments in my classroom.
What I really use to grade my student’s work is a checklist of expectations. I show this to them for any given project that we are working on. This way students know the minimum requirements to obtain what I call a decent grade – a B plus.
But then I also let them know that if they want to receive that coveted A or A+, there is another hurdle that they must surmount – creativity.
Only those students who take the time and make the effort to provide that extra brilliance, finesse and flair to their work will make the grade (so to speak).
FINAL COMMENT: Avoid the dust bin of history.
I will finish with one final comment on rubrics.
To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, there is no better way to insure the relegation of most student work to the dust bin of history (i.e. the teacher’s circular file) than by giving students a rubric to follow.
If a teacher is satisfied with only receiving the mundane, banal and expected, he will give his students a rubric to follow.
If he wants potentially exceptional results, he will throw away the “rows, columns and boxes” approach to assessment and emphasize creativity.