Rubric’s Clues

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When the accountabilty movement in education took off at the turn of the century, schools and teachers were called on to justify their quality claims by defining expected student learning outcomes and stating publicly whether students had met them. This ‘no child left behind’ approach filtered through to postsecondary English language programs by way of accreditation requirements, and classroom evaluation of students moved from a largely qualitative exercise (‘speaks well,’ ‘a good writer’) to a strongly quantitative one. From that point on, student language evaluation had to be based on observable, measurable behaviors.

There is a challenge in trying to quantify something that is largely qualitative in nature. Think of assigning a numerical score to a work of art or a scene in nature, for example. Measurement is typically reserved for the physical world and is expressed in standardized units such as centimeters, kilograms, and degrees, which everyone in the world agrees on. How do you apply that approach to a second language learner’s performance in a conversation, or an essay? What is the unit of measurement for language ability? (Standardized test providers have tried to quantify language proficiency for many years, but it would be a challenge to describe what a single point on the TOEFL test represents.)

For classroom teachers, this is where rubrics come in. A rubric is a grid that typically comprises columns representing levels of achievement on an assessment task (e.g. “Did not achieve,” “Minimally achieved,” “Achieved,” “Exceeded”) and rows describing aspects of the task (such as “Includes a topic sentence,” “Uses discourse markers,” “Uses vocabulary appropriately”). A rubric is essentially a yardstick for measuring students’ performance on an assessment task. It lacks the objectivity of a standardized measure (although this can be improved if teachers ‘calibrate’ the rubric by agreeing on different levels of performance in students’ work), but it makes teachers and schools accountable for student achievement by certifying what students did or didn’t do. From an accountability standpoint, this is a step forward compared with purely qualitative evaluations of students’ performance.

If you have to create rubrics, here are three pieces of advice:

1. Determine how much detail you need. Before creating the rubric, consider what level of detail you need to give in the student’s evaluation. If it is a simple letter grade, you may not need to do a detailed analysis of a student’s language using many rows of the rubric. You might be able to take a more holistic approach, describing the whole task in one or two rows. Similarly, include only as many columns (indicating level of performance) as necessary. Writing differentiated performance levels is challenging; there should be a clear difference between each one so that you are not scratching your head wondering which description best fits the student’s performance. As with many things in life, keep things  simple and avoid unnecessary effort by including only as much detail as is needed for your purpose.

2. Avoid using the words, “is able to” on the rubric. Remember that the rubric is a measuring tool and should describe only what the student did or did not do. A tape measure can give you the dimensions of a bookcase, but you (not the not the tape measure) have to evaluate whether it fits in your living room. Similarly, you use the information from the rubric to determine what the student can and cannot do. The rubric itself does not tell you that.

3. Include only assessed items on the rubric. If it is not in your course objectives, it should not be in your rubric. For example, if students are required to give a PowerPoint presentation, you would only include ‘creative, eyecatching slides’ on the rubric if this were one of the course objectives and you had taught it. Otherwise you are assessing skills that were not taught. (An exception to this advice is if students had learned a skill in a previous or connected course in the curriculum, which they were expected to incorporate in this course.) Don’t assess students on knowledge and skills that you did not teach them.

Demands for accountability in education continue, so rubrics are here to stay. Even if rubrics will never reach the level of objectivity of standardized measures, educators should learn to create effective rubrics as part of their professional skill set. Good luck!

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