Recommended Reading: Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson

41wGWEmUPIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This book is good. Really good. Actually, I’m a little sad I did not discover it until recently. If I had read during my teaching days…who knows, maybe I would have gone back to get my English degree. Instead, I found Improving Schools from Within by Roland Barth and got the administrative bug. A good outcome, and interesting how a book can change your life trajectory.

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction (Heinemann, 2006) is one of those books that can have an impact on any K-12 educator. The position Wilson takes isn’t simply to rethink rubrics but to question their very existence in the literacy classroom. Instead, teachers should be using responsive instruction, assessing as students are in the act of reading and writing, to focus on their strengths and writing as a whole.

Wilson sets the table for questioning rubrics by first examining the term “best practice”.

Just as reflective teachers must question their own performance, we must be willing to question the methods accepted as best by the field of writing methods, an idea that may strike us as sacrilege. The very words best practice are loaded; if we aren’t following best practice, aren’t we by extention following worst practice? In addition, the term drips with authority.

I’ve been on the receiving end when I have questioned curriculum acquisitions, such as literacy-programs-in-a-box. “It’s best practice,” I was informed. End of discussion. Wilson puts into prose the courage teachers and principals need to muster to resist these unfounded arguments.

In brief, Wilson points out the many inherent flaws of using rubrics in writing instruction:

  • They are reductive, breaking down writing into isolated parts, even though good writing is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • They force agreement when assessing writing, an interpretative craft.
  • They demand objectivity, even though appreciation for reading and writing is subjective.
  • They focus on product, yet writing is a process.
  • They are not authentic – professional writers don’t use rubrics to self-assess their work. They internalize criteria for good writing while maintaining their own voice.
  • They are based on a deficit model; when we use rubrics to assess student writing, we are looking for what’s wrong with their work instead of possibilities.

(It was also interesting to discover that rubrics were developed by the College Board, the same organization that came up with the Common Core State Standards. For another time…)

Rubrics aren’t the only teaching practices skewered in this well-written text. For example, grading is another challenge in the literacy classroom. Like rubrics, grades distort the final product and do not consider the process of student work. Students instead merely complete the assignment instead of truly investing in the act of reading and writing with a purpose. By replacing traditional assessment practices such as rubrics and grades with descriptive and timely feedback, as Wilson suggests, students will start to innovate in their writing and better appreciate this type of work.

If you are looking for one book to read this summer and have also questioned the use of traditional practices in literacy instruction, I recommend Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction. It’s a resource that will push your thinking not only about rubrics in writing but also about assessment in general.


Next week, several contributors and I will start reading and responding to our summer book choice, Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen. Check in with this blog regularly for new posts. Better yet, read this book with us and share your thinking in the comments!

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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