Rethinking Rubrics

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.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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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:

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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.

Do you know how I know my son read his book?

  1. He was asking about the next book in the series before he was halfway through the first one.
  2. The thickness of his book doubled while reading it, due to spilling his drink on the pages while eating and reading.
  3. Creases regularly appeared on the spine of his book while reading it.
  4. The book’s covers were bent because he fell asleep on top of his book one night while reading.
  5. The book’s corners were frayed because my son shoved his book in his backpack every morning.
  6. My son wanted to watch the movie about his book before he was finished.
  7. His classmates wanted to read his book once he finished, after seeing him immersed in it.
  8. My son continued to think and talk about his book, long after he finished it.
  9. My son can identify a related series to his book that he might want to read next.
  10. My son’s love for reading increased after reading his book.

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Rethinking Reading Logs

In another lively #educoach Twitter chat, we discussed the first chapter of Donalyn Miller’s book Reading in the Wild. This excellent resource provides educators with many ideas on how to raise readers for a lifetime, and not just for that next test or quiz.

A topic that came up near the end of the discussion was reading logs.

There were multiple responses. Most of them were not favorable toward this practice. I realize why educators use reading logs: We want students to become habitual readers. But why do we develop habits? A habit is a behavior that we repeat over and over because we experience something positive from it.

Reading logs do not develop lifelong readers. It is the act of reading itself – the entertainment to be had, the information gained, and the subsequent socialization we experience – that keeps us coming back for more.

So how can we rethink this assessment tool, so that the accountability we place on students to become more regular readers augments instead of detracts from the experience?

Reading Graffiti Boards

Our 4th and 5th grade teachers all attended a one day workshop with Donalyn Miller last fall. Reading graffiti boards is an idea suggested by her. The teacher puts up black butcher paper. He or she then models how to write favorite lines from their book they are reading on the board. Metallic markers make the writing pop out.

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During my regular walkthroughs, I enjoyed watching this graffiti board expand with student contributions. This tool for sharing led to students having more authentic peer conversations with each other about what they were reading. It also served well as a natural way to recommend titles.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Blog Instead of Log

My son hated filling out his reading log as a first grader this past school year. It was like pulling teeth, as they say. Because he liked technology (just like his dad:), we tried blogging about his reading instead.

We used KidBlog as our writing tool. Initially, it was still the same process of forcing him to respond to his reading. But once he started getting comments from family members, such as his grandmother, he became more motivated to share his reading life.

We hit pay dirt when one of his favorite authors, Johnathan Rand, posted a comment on his blog post about his book series Freddy Fernortner: Fearless First Grader. (I had emailed the author my son’s post about his books, in hopes of him responding.) After a discussion in the comments, including many questions from my son, I suggested hosting a Skype chat between the author and his classmates.

Before the Skype chat, the classroom teacher had the students suggest several questions for Mr. Rand. When they finally did connect with him, students had the opportunity to come up and speak with the author, each with a question in hand.

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After this experience, I was told that many of my son’s 1st grade classmates were much more motivated to read, especially the Freddy Fernortner chapter book series. This included one student who last semester was in Reading Recovery.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Create Book Trailers

In another one of our 4th grade classrooms, a teacher had discovered Educreations. This is a simple web-based screencasting tool that can be used on iPads and other mobile devices. Students in this classroom still had reading expectations, but they were to create a book trailer for a title they had recently read.

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Book trailers are visual and audio summaries of titles, with the purpose of convincing someone else to read that book. The students in this classroom regularly shared their creations with their peers by mirroring the content onto the whiteboard. I was told that one of the more challenging students in this classroom, who refused to do much of any other work, was highly motivated to create these book trailers.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

I realize my repeated question is rhetorical. The reactions, products, and feelings toward reading that I listed would not have occurred with the outdated practice of paper-based reading logs. There needs to be an authentic audience for the responses students are asked to produce about their reading. This audience creates a more profound purpose for these types of assessments and accountability tasks.

What is your opinion on reading logs? In what ways have you augmented how students respond to their independent reading? How do you know it is working, in that your students are becoming lifelong readers? Please share in the comments.