See Mrs. Jones. She has a fantastic idea for a new assignment. It’s going to be challenging and engaging and fun. Before she can give this assignment to her students, Mrs. Jones needs to get a few things on paper. She starts by writing up a prompt. See Mrs. Jones smile as her fingers fly across the keyboard, crafting the language that describes what students will do.
Then it’s time to build a rubric. Watch as Mrs. Jones creates an empty table with four columns – one for each level of proficiency – and five rows that break down the areas that will be assessed. Four rows, five columns. Mrs. Jones prepares to fill all twenty cells.
See Mrs. Jones slump down in her chair.
If you’re like Mrs. Jones, you rely on densely packed analytic rubrics to assess student work. But creating these rubrics – trying to imagine every possible scenario that will result in an assignment being labeled as a 1, 2, 3 or 4, or whatever terminology might stand for those numbers – can be both soul-crushing and time-consuming.
Then, when it comes time to assess student work, you’re likely to find many assignments that don’t fit neatly into any one column. What’s worse, others demonstrate qualities you didn’t even anticipate, like the student who spelled everything perfectly but was lax on punctuation. Your “mechanics” section doesn’t have a place for that.
And do students even read these rubrics? Having been on the receiving end of multi-page, multi-cell rubrics stuffed to the gills with 9-point font, I would say no. I did not read all of those cells. I looked at the third and fourth columns, where expectations met and exceeded expectations were described, and I did everything I could to make my work satisfy those criteria. The other two columns got little more than a glance.
Make learning a conversation
Might there be a better way? The answer is yes, and its name is the single-point rubric.
Instead of detailing all the different ways an assignment deviates from the target, the single-point rubric simply describes the target, using a single column of traits. It’s what you’d find at level 3 on a 4-point scale, the “proficient” column, except now it’s all by itself. On either side of that column, there’s space for the teacher to write feedback about the specific things this student did that either fell short of the target (the left side) or surpassed it (the right).
For some, this alternative might cause apprehension: does this mean more writing for the teacher? Possibly. If you’ve only ever used rubrics to highlight key features of a student’s work to justify their score, or worse, simply given the score without pointing to the language that made the difference, then the single-point rubric will require more from you. But when I used analytic rubrics, I ended up having to do a bunch of writing anyway, squeezing my comments into the cells to provide more specific feedback, or adding a long note at the end summarizing the factors that influenced the score.
With a single-point rubric, the farce of searching for the right pre-scripted language is over, leaving you free to describe exactly what this student needs to work on.
If you’re moving away from traditional grades, the single-point rubric is a perfect instrument for delivering specific feedback: The open columns on either side leave plenty of room to comment on exactly what this student needs to do to improve their work, or to pinpoint the ways they have gone above and beyond. And if you’d like to get more student input when creating rubrics, it’s even easier when you only have to craft language for the desired outcome, rather than the missteps.
Is there ever a need for a fully loaded, “hot mess” rubric? Only in cases where feedback is never part of the plan: when a piece of writing is going to be scored on a state assessment, for example, there may be a need to identify every level of performance. But again, the people using these rubrics aren’t interested in helping students learn and grow; their only goal is to score.
But a teacher aspires to more than that. And different aspirations require different tools. Let’s leave the hot mess rubric to the testing companies.
You and me and Mrs. Jones? We can do better.
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A National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence/English Language Arts, Jennifer Gonzalez has been a middle school teacher and a college-level teacher of teachers. She now devotes herself full-time to curating and creating resources to help teachers make their work more effective and satisfying.