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Topic: My Limited Understanding of Rubrics
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,020
Registered: 12/3/04
My Limited Understanding of Rubrics
Posted: Jan 23, 2014 5:03 PM
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From Tom Whitby, Wednesday, January 22, 2014.See
My Limited Understanding of Rubrics

By Tom Whitby

My career as a teacher began way before the introduction of Rubrics
to education. As an English teacher I was required to assess
students' writing and convert that assessment into a grade for the
student. Back in the 70's the most progressive grading method I was
exposed to was giving a grade over another grade (85/95). The top
grade was for the piece and the bottom grade was for the effort
exhibited. The entire grade was almost totally subjective, and
dependent on the good will of the teacher to attempt to be as
objective as possible. I always considered the effort grade a way to
clear the conscience.

I thought that this subjective method of grading was pretty much gone
until I had a recent conversation with my daughter about her college
writing class. It would seem her professor was old school and
assigned grades on assignments using the holistic method of just
reading and assigning a grade. Little explanation, or justification
for the grade was presented. I began to wonder how many educators
still employ these methods. I have seen research that indicated most
kids do not read or respond to comments on papers left by
instructors, but whatever was the basis for any assessed grade should
be explained somewhere. We often tell students it is more about the
learning than it is about the grade, yet we give the grade without an
explanation, so how can learning take place? Of course time, or a
lack of it, is often the reason for this, and that is a factor to be
dealt with. As a former English teacher I know my visceral reaction
to those who argue that class size should not matter; the more kids
we have the less time we get.

Again, back in the day, I would underline mistakes without comment.
My intent was to have students attempt to figure out why segments
were underlined on their own. I even provided collaboration time so
they could check with a "study buddy". I would then meet with them
for a brief face-to-face meeting for feedback and comments. This was
time-consuming, but effective for some, not all. It was still
difficult to objectify what was, so obviously, a subjective
assessment. Can tone outweigh a few grammatical mistakes? Are two
simple sentences worth less than a compound, or even more a complex
sentence? Does the grasp of the content overshadow the poor sentence
structure? Was I being consistent for every paper from each of my
students? Were all papers being assessed equally? I was rarely
satisfied with the answers to these questions that kept popping up in
my head with every graded assignment.

I remember the first time I heard the term "Rubric" in a department
meeting. I had no idea what it was, but I did not want that to be
found out through my questioning, so I sat quietly until the
conclusion of the meeting. My mistaken impression was that we were to
break down the components that we were grading for, and assign a
rating scale for each. That seemed simple enough. I have come to
learn that many educators hold this simplistic view today. It is not
truly what I came to understand as to what a Rubric is.

We were, as a department, giving a grade level assignment, so to make
sure that the assessment of the assignment was as fair and objective
as possible, we were to develop rubrics that all concerned teachers
could live by. That would also enable anyone in the department to
grade any paper with consistency. We discussed what was to be
graded. What each section was to be worth. We described in detail
what the top of the scale should include for each section, as well as
the middle, and the bottom. We even defined what specifically
constitutes a zero paper in the event that we got one.

I found the process in developing these Rubrics eye-opening. For the
first time, I had a clear understanding of what it was I was looking
for with specific guidelines and values. It was no longer a gut
thing. We developed the entire list of Rubrics, arranged them in
boxes, and placed the entire elaborate display horizontally on a
single piece of paper. This was going to be great. I would include
this with each of the assignment packets, and all would be clear to
each of my students.

That clarity never came to my kids. I failed to recognize that what
took me time to analyze, digest, and appreciate with understanding,
only occurred over a period of time while developing the rubrics.
That experience could not translate to reading a document, no matter
how elaborate, or eye appealing it might be. I realized after the
first class which I tried this in, that I needed a better strategy. I
needed to spend more time up front, so I could use less time and get
better results on the back-end.

My plan was simple: I was going to develop the Rubrics with my
students. I reasoned that the process that worked for me, should work
for them as well. I knew where I wanted to take them, because I
worked out the rubrics already. I needed to guide them through it,
taking their ideas, while explaining not only my expectations, but
also what my means of assessment would be in determining their grade.
They became part of the process and took ownership of the rubrics. I
made some small adjustments based on their suggestions.

From that day forward, they had an understanding of Rubrics that
lasted. It actually gave some means of control to the students. I was
as limited to adhering to the Rubrics as the students were. It was a
pact to be honored by all parties. The Students had a clear
understanding of expectations on the assignment. They understood what
would be graded and how it would be counted.

Some might argue that Rubrics enabled students to do less work to
attain a minimum-passing grade. Rubrics might limit a few students in
some ways to go beyond the rubrics. I did not find that to be true.

I know as an adult I want to know what is expected of me in given
situations. As an adult, if I am to be judged on something, I want to
know on what am I being judged and in what way. Kids should be
afforded the same answers and it should not matter what subject in
school this happens. This is how we learn. Is learning not what
education is about?
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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