In our Google+ Community on digital portfolios for students, we have been discussing the pros and cons of rubrics. Yes, they spell out what is expected regarding a summative assessment for a unit of study. Differentiating between levels of understanding can help teachers more efficiently assess assigned performance tasks of student learning. For teachers who are now evaluated within the Danielson Framework for Instruction, the focus is on a rubric.
So what’s the problem? Clear expectations and easy-to-apply assessment tools can make the learning lives of students and teachers more manageable.
This may be exactly why there is a problem. Assessment is not an easy practice to apply. Expectations for what excellence looks like for student learning can become more confusing when we parse out an understanding of mastery in the name of efficiency. Plus, there is the debate about defining poor performance. How much attention should a “1” really be given? Why is a “1” (see: failure) even an option offered to our students?
In this post, I propose three alternatives to rubrics when designing units of study. I am not anti-rubric; rather, we should consider the possibilities when designing instruction for deep student understanding and strong skill development.
Possibility #1: Analyzing Exemplary Pieces of Student Work
This approach works really well with skill-focused learning, such as writing. Showing students what is expected to achieve excellence with examples from past learners can have a better impact.
Below is an example: A mastery wall of student writing, compiled by grade level teams as a mid-year informative writing check.
How might sharing and analyzing exemplary student work be an improvement over rubrics?
Possibility #2: Standards of Excellence
I don’t know if you have noticed, but the Common Core State Standards, especially the literacy anchor standards, read like a rubric. Each phrase within the standard addresses a specific understanding or skill. Standards of excellence are paragraph-length descriptions of what a student should know and be able to do after a progression of learning activities. What is described is what is expected. Anything less is scored below a “4”, largely at the discretion of the student + teacher discussing the work.
Here is an example I created for a unit of study on narrative writing:
As an author, craft an original story, real or imagined, that has a beginning, middle, and end. This story shall have an attention-grabbing lead, rising action that keeps the reader going, and a satisfying conclusion. It shall be free of confusing language and grammatical errors. In addition, your story shall be both entertaining and informative.
How might crafting a standard of excellence be an improvement over rubrics?
Possibility #3: Novice vs. Expert Understanding
If the concept of a rubric is hard to depart from, consider this alternative. It comes from the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The teacher determine what is a basic understanding derived from a unit of study, and contrasts that with a deep understanding which warrants a high level of recognition. Here is an example from a 4th grade unit on state history and geography:
Both effort and skill development are recognized within this assessment.
How might differentiating between novice and expert understanding be an improvement over rubrics?
What are your thoughts on this topic of rubrics and alternative assessments? Please share your thinking in the comments.