Thursday, June 17, 2010

Assessing Students' Writing with Rubrics: First, Do No Harm

NOTE:  I wrote this reflection back in 2001, and ran across it in a file this week.  My view has not changed. 
For non-teachers, a "rubric" is a list of qualities ranging from "strong thesis sentence" to "fewer than three spelling errors."  Each quality gets a point value.  In theory, students know before they hand a paper in how much credit their paper should earn; teachers can respond simply by checking off items on the rubric and adding up points.
    For non-Episcopalians, a "rubric" is an instruction written in red (L. rubra) in the margins of a prayer book to guide priests in the motions and choices they have during any rite.
      Here's the reflection:

      The worst experiences I had as a teacher assessing writing both came about when I thought I was upholding high standards as prescribed on a rubric. 

      Ready-made rubrics are available
      According to the rubric, Laura's researched essay earned C-.  She'd been warned: thesis sentence in the introduction, topic sentences for every paragraph, or else.  She'd been warned at two earlier stages of the writing, too. I didn't see past the rubric to the fact that this paper was a huge step forward for her, that it did many other things I'd asked for.  I didn't know the immense amount of time she had put into making it the best she knew how.  She was crushed, and the entire eighth grade rallied to her support.  In a class meeting, they suggested more flexibility in the rubric....  They also told me (not in so many words) to frontload the assessment, to do more directing early on and to de-emphasize the final grade.  That is, in fact, how I use rubrics now, as a guide and gatepost early on.  My colleague Bonnie Webb (Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project) says it this way:  "[Student], you're going to write an A paper, and this is not yet an A paper."

      [Laura's mother quipped that we teachers should take the Hippocratic oath:  "First, do no harm."]

      My second bad experience relates to the flip side of rubrics: when they work, they can still do damage.  It was my A++ student Adrian who deflected a compliment from me at the end of the year.  He said I was wrong, that he used to be a good writer, but now he was just writing by formula (i.e., the rubric).  He's right.  I fail to find any articles in New Yorker or even Newsweek that follow those "high standards" involving the five-paragraph formula.

      I compare what I did to Laura and Adrian to what Mrs. Spear did for me in seventh grade.  What I learned in my research on "world religions" stays with me, and I spent weekends and one long night on it, proud of my grown-up subject and (I thought) grown-up conclusions.  But I still didn't "get" what a "paragraph" was, and several of mine in that paper are one sentence long.  Few of the paragraphs have topic sentences.  By my own rubric, that was a C- or worse.  But, bless her,  Mrs. Spear encouraged what was good, and saved battles over paragraphing for some other occasion or year.  [Result:   I was confident as a writer, and therefore interested in learning how to improve.]   She graded the paper separately on content, organization, grammar, spelling, and neatness.  Got A's and B's except for the C- in neatness.

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