Are Rubrics Effective Assessment Tools?

Rubrics, smubricks.  I feel like that’s all I’ve been blogging about lately as I’m trying to determine their effectiveness.  I feel like a broken record.  I’m getting to the point now where I’m not even sure what a rubric is?  Is it a chart?  A procedure?  What makes a rubric a rubric?  Why do I have to keep typing the word rubric?  Ahhh, I’ve had enough of these rubrics.  I’m throwing them out the window.  Oh, wait a minute.  I don’t actually have a window that opens to the outside in my classroom.  I guess I’ll just have to throw them away instead.  Well, I don’t want to fill our landfill with more useless stuff.  I should probably recycle them so that somewhere, sometime soon someone will be reading or writing on something that is made up of particles from an old, ridiculous, and overused, rubric.  Uh oh, but then rubrics will literally be everywhere, and so I’m not actually going to be able to escape them, ever.  I’m going to start having nightmares about killer rubrics from outer space.  Oh, this is horrible.  Just say no to rubrics!

After that rant, I sort of lost my train of thought.  Oh yes, I know what I wanted to focus on for today’s blog.  Rubrics!  There’s that pesky word again.  It’s like a giant wart that just won’t go away.  Anyway, back to rubrics.  So, today in my study skills class, the students completed work on the final project for our brain unit.  They had to create a Learning Goals Plan that included one SMART goal for each of their major courses along with a plan detailing what they will do to meet their goals.  The plan needed to reference ideas discussed during the unit.  After collecting their plans, we discussed the whole unit.  I asked the boys what they liked and what they found challenging.  They provided my co-teacher and I with some useful feedback.  They loved learning about the brain and found our unit very useful.  They feel as though they’ve never learned about the brain before even though it’s one of the most important parts of their body.  This is all great feedback that we can use as we revise this unit for next year.

I closed our discussion today by asking them about the Learning Goals Plan project.  I explained to the students how we had put them into two groups on PowerSchool: Half the class had a detailed rubric outlining the Learning Goals Plan project and requirements, while the other group simply had the procedure with the graded objectives listed.  I did this as a way to gather data on the effectiveness of rubrics.  I asked the group that didn’t have the rubric, “Did you notice a difference?  Was it harder to complete the project without a rubric?  Were you ever lost or confused?”  I was a bit surprised by the responses.  All but one student said they didn’t even realize they weren’t provided with a rubric.  They followed the directions and reviewed the graded objectives as they worked.  This group felt very comfortable with the project and requirements without a rubric.  The one student who felt a bit lost without a rubric is an ELL.  He said, “I felt like I didn’t know exactly what was expected for each part of the project.  A rubric would have helped me feel like I knew what I was doing.”  This makes sense.  As our ESL students struggle to understand and comprehend English, having a rubric does help to clarify and make sense of the directions.  It simplifies the language for them.  The other students in that group without the rubric were native English speakers.  As they have a strong grasp of the language, they didn’t feel the need for clarification.  They felt confident without a rubric.  The group without the rubric was composed of four ELLs and one native English speaker.  The ESL students in that group all felt as though having the rubric was helpful.  They used it to guide them through the project.  It was their beacon in the snowstorm of work.  One of the students said, “The rubric helped us ESL students be on the same level as the native speakers since the rubric explained stuff in a way that makes sense to us.”  Rubrics give the ELLs a step up in the learning process.  This information definitely lines up with my thinking on rubrics and their effectiveness.  Rubrics are useful and almost necessary for ELLs to meaningfully and appropriately complete projects and tasks.  Our native English speakers, on the other hand, don’t really need one, according to the feedback I received from my students today in class.  For a future project, I’m thinking I will provide my ESL students with a detailed rubric and then make them available to the other native English speakers who feel that they need one.  They’ll be optional for the domestic students but required for the ELLs in my class.  I think this approach might work best…

BUT.  Of course, there’s always a but.  When I graded their Learning Goals Plan, I noticed that more of the students in the group that was provided with a rubric met or exceeded the graded objective.  Only one student in the group that was not provided a rubric met the objective.  So, does this mean that the students in the group that feel like they don’t need a rubric actually do need a rubric to be successful?  If not, then why did the group with the rubric have more success in meeting the graded objective?  Was it the rubric?  Was it the students themselves?  Work ethic definitely plays a role in all of this.  The students who want to do well will do well no matter what, and the students who just do the least amount of work to get by will do that regardless of having a rubric.  I do find that the ESL students in my class work harder because they need to and want to.  They know that in order to gain acceptance into independent secondary schools, they need to do well and earn high grades.  This motivation means that they typically work harder than the average domestic student in my class.  So, that makes a difference too.  Would this ESL group have done as well without a rubric?  Perhaps, because they would have asked questions and sought help to achieve the graded they were working towards.  So, should I make rubrics optional for all students or mandate them for all students?  What approach makes the most sense?  For the group of students I’m working with this year, I feel as though rubrics are necessary.  For those students who use them, they will make great use of them and feel very prepared for the task or project, while those students who don’t use them, can just ignore them.  If I provide everyone with a rubric, the likelihood is that even those students who say they don’t use a rubric may actually reference it once or twice during the working phase of the assignment.  I like it.  So, that’s what I’ll do for our next graded project or task: Everyone gets a rubric.  Who knows, maybe it will help everyone to meet or exceed the graded objectives?

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