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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How Do You Motivate Students to do their Best Without Focusing on their Grades?

I was really good at the game I called school once I hit the seventh grade.  I figured out what my teachers wanted and so I gave it to them.  It wasn’t about learning for me, it was about jumping through hoops and meeting the expectations my teachers set.  My English teacher, for example, liked it when students used lots of adjectives and descriptive words in their writing and so I made sure to do just that in each and every written assignment.  For me, the focus was on grades.  My parents bribed me to get good grades by paying me for every A and B I received.  So, I made sure to complete work that would earn me high marks in all of my classes.  It worked.  I earned a spot on my school’s National Honor Society and spent every term on the Honor Roll.  I kicked butt at school because I focused on the grades.  Unfortunately though, if you asked me what I learned back in those days, I would have very little to say as I didn’t retain much.  I was a passive learner.  I regurgitated facts and information and then erased them from my mind.  I wasn’t actively looking to learn as I was so focused on earning high grades.  In retrospect, I wish I had been more interested in the information and skills my teachers were trying to teach me as I feel like I would have gotten so much more out of my school experience.

Learning from my mistakes as a student, I make sure that as a teacher, my students don’t just go through the motions to complete work and earn high marks.  I want my students to see school as a journey and an adventure, not a game they are trying to win.  To do this, I craft meaningful and relevant assignments that allow the students to think critically about the content and skills learned to answer questions, reflect, make or construct something, or simply write.  These engaging, hands-on, and creative assignments force students to think about information learned in new and unique ways that prevent them from simply restating what was discussed in class or learned on a website.  The next big piece that helps me be sure my students see school as an exploration is grading and assessment.  Students don’t earn letter grades or percentages for assignments as we utilize the objectives/standards-based grading system in the sixth grade.  Each assignment may be graded on more than one objective and so they are earning more than one grade for most every assignment.  Our grades are as follows:

  • 4: Exceeds the Objective
  • 3: Meets the Objective
  • 2: Working Towards the Objective
  • 1: Insufficient Data to Assess Ability to Meet or Work Towards Meeting the Objective

The students learn, early on in the academic year, how our system works.  We don’t talk about As and Bs in the sixth grade, we talk about objectives and skills.  This puts the focus on school as a journey towards understanding rather than a game to win.  We also make use of the redo process in the sixth grade.  When a student earns an objective grade that he feels does not display his best effort and work, he can redo it in a timely manner to be reassessed.  This allows the students to strive for success and their best effort in the class at all times.  This restructuring of school by using the objectives-based grading system and making assignments meaningful and challenging for the students helps us change the perception our students have of school.  School then is no longer about jumping through hoops and completing busy work; school becomes a learning process for the students.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in a writing activity in which they had to write about a picture that showed a woman or women from the Middle East region wearing some sort of head scarf.  The writing task was very open ended: They could write a story explaining what they believed to be the woman’s story; they could write a poem explaining the picture or their thoughts about the picture; they could describe what the image shows; or they could explain their thoughts and feelings about the picture and what it depicts.  The paper on which they were using to record their writing included questions to inspire them as they reflected on the picture.  The students had ten minutes to complete this activity in class.  We want our students to learn to be able to sustain their writing stamina for a long period of time while writing about one topic or idea.  This activity is yet another way for them to practice this skill.  My co-teacher and I had no expectations for what would come from this activity as we just wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to write and reflect on their prior knowledge and perception of women who wear a headscarf.  We didn’t know what would come from this activity.

The result was inline with what we’ve observed from our students during the past few months, and so we were not surprised by the outcome.  Those students who put forth their best effort in everything they do in the classroom, did just that again for this assignment.  They filled at least one page with meaningful and reflective words.  They stayed focused for the entire ten minutes and worked diligently to write as much as possible so that they could showcase their ability to meet or exceed the graded objective.  For these students, doing their best work is just how they live their lives.  They like to be challenged in order to demonstrate their strengths.  We don’t need to discuss the importance of working hard in and out of class with these students.  They get it.

Those students who struggle to process information, had the same trouble with this task.  They wrote nothing on their paper despite helpful hints, ideas, and reminders.  They were so stuck in one way of thinking or processing the information, that they couldn’t write anything at all.  While we have seen much progress from these students since September, tasks like the one we did today in Humanities class do still challenge them.  To help motivate these students, we work with them independently, ask them questions, provide them extra support outside of the class day, and remind them of the graded objectives they need to meet or exceed.  In some instances, these strategies we employ work and the students are able to showcase their best effort and work.  On some tasks though, like the one we did today in class, the two students who had nothing written on their paper aren’t motivated by the typical strategies we use.  The only way to motivate these two students to work and display their best effort on assignments that challenge them is to focus on the grade they will receive.  “If you don’t complete this task, you will earn a 1/4 for this graded objective.  This low score will cause your overall Humanities grade to go down quite a bit,” are the the lines we are forced to use from time to time with these two students.  As my co-teacher and I don’t like to focus on grades in our classroom, we don’t like having to stoop to this level.  However, it seems to be the only way to inspire them to work.

Are there other strategies we could be using that would not focus on grades and help motivate these two students to accomplish a task they find quite difficult?  Are we missing something?  We know that they can write and be creative as we’ve seen it in the other courses and on many other assignments they’ve completed this year.  So, what’s the issue?  Should we just let them fail at the task if it means we have to focus on grades to motivate them?  I don’t have an answer to this question, but it does make me wonder how I can inspire and motivate students to do their best work and put forth their best effort without focusing on grades.  Is it possible?  In a world driven by grades, money, and success, the way we have organized our class to not focus on these big ideas seems as though we are creating a counterculture within the classroom.  Is that okay?  Should we be trying to break free from the constraints society places on people or fall in line like every other school or classroom around the world?  As I have always strived to be a bit different from the mainstream, I’m completely okay going against the norm if it means I can help my students grow and develop into free-thinking adults who see life as a journey.

Professional Development Summer Reading Part I

Last week, the parent of one of my sixth graders called me to share her son’s feelings on a grade he had received recently.  Of course, as teachers, we all know that phone calls like this are about far more than what they appear.  She didn’t want to tell me how her son was feeling, she wanted to argue with me about his grade.  His free verse poem had met the two graded objectives and thus he had received a 3/4 on each of them.  I said, “This is great.  He is doing what we expect.  Sure, I do wish he had better incorporated the feedback his writing group and I provided, but he is clearly working at grade level and meeting our expectations.”  Her response, “What do you mean he didn’t utilize the feedback?  Did you look at the bottom of his poem?  He had listed the feedback provided and explained how he had incorporated it.  I don’t understand why he wasn’t able to exceed the objectives.”  At this point in the conversation, I reminded her that I am not about to debate her son’s grades.  This caused her to change her tune a bit, but then of course allowed her the opportunity to bring up more grades and assignments.  “My son spends every weekend doing work and he doesn’t understand why he’s not earning As,” she said.  I reminded her that we focus on the learning process and the graded objectives and not the letter grade.  Still confused despite the numerous conversations I’ve had with her throughout the year on our grading philosophy in the sixth grade, she continued, “My son said that many other students didn’t have their work done on time and needed to finish it during their free time.  How is that fair?”

I’m sure we’ve all had conversations with parents like the one I had recently.  They don’t want to understand why we are trying to change the grading system to help support the learning process.  They wonder why their child’s grades are lower than they had been in the past.  They want to blame everything or everyone else but their child.  While families like these tend to be a rarity, we will still encounter them in the classroom, on the playing fields, on the phone, in the grocery store, etc.  So, why does this mindset of letter grades and timeliness still exist in our country?  Why are some families and students stuck in thinking that if they turn in a beautiful poster with a plagiarized map, they should still earn an A because it is pretty?

It’s all about the grading systems used in schools around the country, and in many cases around the world.  Schools and teachers are still arbitrarily giving students As and Cs at the top of their paper or on the side of a project with no conversation or explanation.  How do we expect students to be able to reflect on their learning process and understand what they need to do to grow and improve as a student if they have no idea where a grade came from?  We need to change from what was acceptable 100 years ago and realize that we are preparing very different students for life in a vastly different world.  Students need to be equipped with different skills now than they did even 20 years ago.  To help students learn and grow, we need to be clear and specific in our grading.  Students need to understand what skills or objectives an assignment or task is being graded on.  For example, the free verse poem that the parent referenced in the phone call I mentioned at the start of today’s entry was graded on two objectives: Students will be able to craft a unique free verse poem and Students will be able to craft a poem that accurately utilizes flow, rhythm, at least two examples of figurative language, and stanzas.  We didn’t grade their poem on spelling or topic.  We focused solely on those two objectives that we had spent our entire poetry unit focusing on.  We then had conversations with the students on their poem and the two graded objectives.  Almost every student understood where they grades came from.  They got it.  Sure, it took the whole year for them to understand why we grade them on the learning process, but they finally got there.  Many of our students, at the close of the academic year, understood that learning is a journey and not a game with a set time limit.

My first summer reading professional development text Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck totally aligns with our sixth grade grading philosophy.  He explains the whys and hows at the start and then digs into the big ideas chapter by chapter.  I’ve been grading and assessing my students in this manner for four years now and I’ve noticed a huge difference in their growth over the course of the year as well as their long term progress.  The students own their learning and realize that it is a process that must be continually refined.  No student is born being able to exceed every objective just like no person is born being able to run a marathon in record time.  Everything he’s preaching about, I can support and advocate for because I’ve seen it work first hand.  However, for someone who has been using an objectives-based grading system for a few years, this book is repetitive and hyperbolic.  He spends the first chapter or 35 pages explaining why teachers should not award students zeros or take off points for late work.  I’ve thought this for years.  This book, while completely necessary for schools and teachers around the world who do still use the broken and innaccurate grading system of letters and random numbers, is not for me.  I want to learn about how to take my objectives-based grading to the next level.  How can I improve upon what I already have?  This book would be great for the teachers at my school who still insist on docking students for turning in an assignment late.  What does that prove?  I think it’s all about power.  Some teachers want to control everything in the name of teaching ownership and responsibility.  Those teachers need to step back and really assess their grading system and how it affects students.  Students with whom I’ve spoken to who have teachers who use defunct grading systems are unhappy, unmotivated, or scared.  They don’t want to do the work or feel as though they have to so that they don’t fail.  How is fear or apathy going to help inspire students to change the world?

So, in conclusion, academic grading systems around the world are broken and in need of repair.  The objectives-based or standards-based assessment method is one that works well.  Dueck’s book details this grading system very well for new or inexperienced teachers unfamiliar with this grading format.  While I will finish this book, it’s a bit basic for me.  But, like I try to encourage my students to do, I will go into the rest of the book with a growth mindset because who knows, I might learn something new or change my perspective.

Teachers Don’t Give Grades, Students Earn Them

In college, every paper I wrote, was returned to me with no more than a few words of feedback and a circled letter grade.  The many hours of hard work and effort I put into each essay I wrote was equivalent to a single letter and no more than a sentence of feedback.  That’s it?  What does a B- even mean?  On what criteria or objectives was my paper being assessed?  While I had no idea what the grade meant, I accepted it.  I never really understood how my teachers graded me back when I was in school.  Almost arbitrarily, it seemed, a grade appeared at the top of every assignment I had turned in.  No words or explanation, just a letter, circled.  What was the point of circling the letter?  Was I going to get confused by what I looked at?  There was only ever one red, scarlet letter at the top of my papers.  Why circle it?  The circling of the letter seemed to me to be as random as the grad I received for my work.

Despite all of these unknowns, my parents always reinforced the idea that grades are received and not given.  My work earned the strange circled letter I received.  Teachers don’t give grades, my mom used to say, you earn them.  Luckily, I learned this lesson at an early age.  I never blamed my teachers for giving me a grade I didn’t feel I earned.  I worked harder on the next assignment if I achieved a grade I didn’t feel as though I deserved.  I never complained.  Times were different twenty years ago when I was in school.

Currently, most students I teach seem entitled.  They feel as though they deserve a good grade despite  the quality of their work.  And I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Why did you give me this grade?” in the classroom at the start of the year.  Many of our students come from schools that grade students like I was graded, randomly.  They feel as though they have the right to argue their way into a better grade.  This entitlement is ridiculous.  Perhaps it stems from the “Here’s your trophy for just showing up” attitude that our society has taken recently.  “Everybody is awesome!” seems to echo throughout public schools and athletic facilities across the world.  This has got to change or else the future of our world is in jeopardy.  Many students who I’ve taught over the years enter the sixth grade being unable to solve problems despite feeling as though they are the best people, thinkers, and athletes in the world.  If these students are our future leaders, we are in serious trouble.

This week, the parent of one of my students emailed my co-teacher and I wondering why his son was struggling so much in the sixth grade.  “In his last school, he only ever got As.”  This parent, seemed to imply that because his son had always gotten As, he should be given As again.  If I wanted to give things away I would have become a game show host.  I am a teacher because I want the future leaders of our world to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and team players.  I want the next generation of people to be better than the current generation.  My goal is to challenge and support students while equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to grow and develop into effective global citizens.  I don’t give them anything other than my time, energy, and care.  They have to work for everything in my classroom.  I will guide them to where they want to go, but they need to do the work.  Grades aren’t given, they are earned.  This parent, and many others like him, don’t seem to understand this nugget of truth.  It’s frustrating when the parents control how schools operate.

If this parent’s son put in the effort needed to complete work that demonstrated a mastery of the concepts and skills covered, he could be earning exceptional grades.  However, this student doesn’t ask for help, even when reminded and suggested or sometimes even provided without prompting.  He completes work which demonstrates his inability to meet the standards we have set as an institution.  He can turn in work that displays a strong understanding of the objectives, but he generally chooses not to.  He lacks effort and enthusiasm.  He doesn’t seem to care that his grades are low.  He is happy just being a student in our classroom.  This apathetic mindset is common amongst students in our world today.  They are content with being average.  However, their parents are not happy about the grades they receive.  They see their children as perfect in every way.  So, they feel as though their sons and daughters should be given high grades.  I’m not a merchant at a store.  I don’t sell grades.  Some parents need to manage their expectations while holding the bar higher for their children.

Grades should be a badge of honor.  If you put in the blood, sweat, and tears to master the skills and material covered, then you will earn the appropriate mark.  We need to treat school and grading like life.  If you just do the minimum to get by, you will most likely lose your job or not get a raise or promotion.  Our students need to learn the hard lessons in life early so that they don’t make the silly mistakes later on.  Life is an experience filled with challenges.  If you want the power up or extra life, you need to earn it.  There are no cheat codes in life, or the classroom.