I’m going to make a prediction that you might not like. After reading this post, you’re going to see that you are doing rubrics all wrong.

But that’s okay. I had bad rubrics for years too. In spite of their poor quality, my students were still learning. Yours are too. But maybe our students at that time did not really feel like learners. There was a time when the rubrics I used to score my students’ assignments made them feel like losers.

Photo by Shamia Casiano on Pexels.com

Several years ago, when Carol Dweck’s book was taking American education by storm,  I took a long look at my practice and asked where I was promoting a fixed or growth mindset. Also around that time, I was reading books like John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning and Thomas Guskey’s On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting. All of the combined insights from these influential educators shined a light on the rubrics that I was handing my students. To put it nicely, those rubrics were limiting — focused more on describing how poorly the students were performing rather than pointing out the good things they were doing.

And another thing. I started to pay attention to the design of my rubrics. And the more I looked at them, the more offended I became. Read on to find out more.

SBAC Rubrics Bad Too!

The Two Main Problems with Rubrics

In short, here are the two problems with rubrics:

Problem #1: They lack clarity to inform students of what they did, or did not do, in their work.

Problem # 2: They are designed to communicate student deficits, not student competency.

For problem #1, let’s take a look at a bare-naked example that took the categories of the Argumentative CAASPP Performance Task Rubric, and turned it into an analytic, itemized scoring guide:

Bare Naked Arg Rubric

At a glance, you can see this is a typical analytic rubric. The assessment categories are on the left, the descriptions of each level are on the right (which descend from high to low). If you’re like the old me, when starting a complex assignment, you would give the students a prompt and then the rubric that shows how the assignment is to be assessed/scored.

There were times that I would take the students through the whole rubric to explain each part, maybe even show examples of each category. Perhaps you have done the same. But just take a second and look at all that text in those tiny little boxes. Are students really paying attention to this? Not. At. All. (By the way, this is only ONE part of a three-part rubric!!!)

But that’s not the problem. Let’s assume your students dutifully pay attention to the rubric instruction. They get the basics (categories first, good grade on the left, bad grade on the right). They work hard on an assignment, you mark up a rubric, and then the day arrives when they will receive their feedback. They get the marks, but they are having trouble understanding what they mean because it’s full of qualitative descriptors:


Let’s say that a student was marked as “Developing,” which to me means that they are “on their way” and are “really starting to get the hang of it.” So, what does this student’s claim look like? The rubric reads, “The text contains an unclear or emerging claim that suggests a vague position.” What does that even mean? I’m not sure, but when the student reads this descriptor, it probably doesn’t feel like he or she is “developing.” It probably feels more like he or she is “disappointing” the teacher.

Let’s move down the list. Next is development (as in, how the ideas were put together, not the “developing”). Here the student is confronted with this, “The text provides data and evidence that attempts to back up the claim and unclearly addresses counterclaims or lacks counterclaims.” What is an “attempt” to back up a claim? And which is it? Did the students lack a counterclaim or just unclearly address one?

I could go on, but let me highlight my favorites from this snap shot:

  • What is the difference between a “compelling” claim and a “precise” claim? Doesn’t that depend on audience, rhetorical situation, and type of argument?
  • “Convincing and relevant” vs. “sufficient and relevant”?
  • For the low-scoring description in the “claim” category, it reads, “The text contains an unidentifiable claim or vague position.” I wouldn’t know how to describe a “vague position” to a student, but how does a scorer even know that a text “contains” an “unidentifiable position.” If it is “unidentifiable,” how does a scorer recognize that!?

Basically, the lower-scoring writers who were in my class, the ones who needed the most help, were the most confused about their writing. And even the students who scored high on the rubric really didn’t know what they did to earn that score.

The heart of the problem is that scoring columns use adjectives to describe an elusive quality in student writing. There is no discussion of what the student writer DID and what kind of impact it had on a reader. It’s not feedback that is helping the students adjust their academic behavior to improve their competency. It’s just vague description to justify a score and make the teacher feel he or she is being fair to each student.

All they see is this:

Rubric Good to Bad

And this leas us to problem #2: rubric design. Reading a rubric like this, from left to right, communicates deficit. If a student understands that the good stuff is on the left-hand side of the rubric, and the teacher marked a lower score, their sense in their own competence will wane as they scan from left to right to discover which box was marked. With all of the positive adjectives on the left and increasingly (or is it descreasingly?) condescending adjectives on the right, the communication is subtle: you must be perfect to maintain a top mark.

But none of us are perfect. We also know that none of our students are perfect. Yet the design of our scoring tool continues to reinforce this myth that that students need to be perfect. If they’re not perfect, then they are losers. This does not focus on a student’s growth, but focuses on their inability to accomplish a task at the level of proficiency.

How Can We Fix These Problems?

A Small Fix

One simple change we can all make right away is to simply flip the columns. Leave the category on the left but step-increase the scoring columns from low-to-high. This still leaves the problem of vagueness, but it is at least a better design that moves from bottom to top. It’s the minimum, but it may impact everyone to rethink how they are perceiving the scores. And that can have a big impact.

A Bigger Fix

The best change you can make to an analytic rubric is to get away from adjectives that describe the quality of the product you want from your students. Instead, just describe the behavior you want to see, then mark what you see it.

Here’s an example of a simple scoring guide that I use for an assignment I have named “The Second Draft Entry”:

MetaCog Scoring Guide

As you read this scoring guide, you can see that I am describing the academic behavior I want to see from my students. I describe what they need TO DO to earn each score. Each scoring column to the right assumes the behavior from the left, which means that students cannot accomplish the tasks described on the right if they have not accomplished the tasks on the left.

Also, you’ll notice that there are peculiar items in the scoring guide: 2DE (which is just my short-hand for Second Draft Entry), Meta-Margin, and the sentences frames. These are terms that relate directly to how I teach my students about their metacognition when moving their writing from a first draft to a second draft (see this post for more details). These terms have been defined, explained, and exampled for them. They also have handouts as resources. Either they know what I want from them, or they have the resources to figure it out.

The Best Fix

If you’re going to use an analytic rubric, don’t use a grid. Instead, use a single-point rubric. I first learned about the single-point rubric from Jennifer Gonzalez (@cultofpedagogy) of www.cultofpedagogy.com. She gives an excellent description and a key example or two. Do yourself a favor and check out the above links, or “Your Rubric Is a Hot Mess,” where she did a guest post for Brilliant or Insane.

To sum it up, instead of creating an itemized, analytic rubric that tries (but fails) to describe all the academic behaviors a teacher will encounter in a given assignment, the single-point rubric defines the key academic behavior your looking for, and defines it at the level of proficiency. It’s laid out in three columns: Developing, Succeeding, Exceeding (at least those are the words I use). Only the middle column (succeeding) contains the clearly defined academic behavior. The columns on the left (developing) and right (exceeding) are left blank for assessor comments.

Here’s a template:

Single-Point Rubric Template

That’s all there is to it! The goal, for you and your student, is to not have to make comments, unless it’s on the right (which means they are exceeding the expectation, and you are rewarding them with atta-boys or atta-girls). But if you do comment in the “Developing column,” the feedback is targeted, specific, and will help your student move up to proficiency.

I was able to start incorporating the single-point rubrics into my classroom this past academic year. Of course, I started with the most complex writing assignment my students would face under my teaching. But I thought that it was simple enough to understand that I used them for peer-feedback on the first draft of their inquiry-based argumentative essay based on reading selections of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I took the same basic idea of the single-point rubric and modified it, adding a layer of complexity. Here’s what it looked like for my students’ introduction paragraph:

HeLa Single-Point Intro Paragraph

I worked with another teacher on this assignment, and she said that this rubric was amazingly helpful for peer-to-peer grading. The students were very clear on what they needed TO DO for this writing assignment. And the feedback they received from their peers helped them write a better second draft.

Here are the links to all the single-point rubrics I used for this essay:

Now you have what you need to get started, let’s make the world of rubrics a better place for all of our students. Design your scoring guides so that your students feel like they are growing in their competency as learners. Inform them of what the academic behavior they are exhibiting and give them targeted feedback to reach proficiency and beyond!

person doing thumbs up
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Do you need to make adjustments to your rubrics?

Leave a comment below. 

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3 thoughts on “Does Your Rubric Punish Students?

  1. I inadvertently did a version of the single-point rubric with the 4th graders I was teaching at the end of year. It worked amazingly well because they knew where to shoot. 😊 Your version makes me very happy. I plan to implement this rubric version this next year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome! What a great job stepping us through the fixes! Made the switch to SPRs two years ago and it has been a benefit to all. My next post on summary sheets will feature one.


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