Two Common Misuses of Rubrics

Rubrics are not a new concept in education.  Their benefits have been touted for by many and a quick Internet search reveals large amounts of literature on the topic for anyone interested in learning more.  Likewise, one does not have to look far to find examples of rubrics or websites that will create rubrics.  Given this familiarity, it seems a bit surprising that they are still used incorrectly.  While the benefits of rubrics are significant (see information under “Why use instructional rubrics” here), these benefits are not harnessed when they are used incorrectly.

There are two major misuses of rubrics that I see in action on a regular basis and I would like to take a moment to address them:

  1. Rubrics are not assessment checklists.

Itemized lists with point values, like this, are not rubrics:

non rubric


One of the dominant benefits of rubrics is that it forces the teacher to have a very clear understanding of exactly what the student did well and what they would need to do to improve and this information is communicated to the student.  If a rubric is used well, the student will have a very clear understanding of what they need to do to improve in each category and will not have any need to ask the infamous, “why did I get this mark” question for any item on the rubric.

Rubrics, then, should have a descriptor for each level of achievement.  On the above example, if neatness is a category on a five point scale (assessing neatness to determine if students know a social studies concept is a whole other topic for discussion), students should have a clear explanation of what category five neatness looks like, what category four neatness looks like, and so on.

In her article, “Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning”, Heidi Goodrich Andrade provides the following example of a rubric:rubric example

In contrast to the non-example rubric, Andrade’s rubric has clear explanations for each level of achievement.  There is still some degree of subjectivity within the descriptors (as will typically be the case), but it is far more clear how each level of achievement is attained.  Thus, the student knows what must be done to arrive at the next level of achievement for each category and can use this to inform his/her work from this point on.  This is how rubrics become tools for learning.

     2.  Rubric grades and descriptors need to match

Rubrics are often written into a scale of four or five levels of achievement.  Mathematically speaking, five levels of achievement would mean that each category on the rubric is calculated out of five.  If percentage grades are given (another assessment issue that is yet another topic that needs to be addressed), that would mean that the categories compute to the following percentages:

  • 100% (5/5)
  • 80% (4/5)
  • 60% (3/5)
  • 40% (2/5)
  • 20% (1/5)

The problem with this is that the descriptors for the rubric can often be generalized into something like this:

  • 5/5 – great work.  No improvement needed.
  • 4/5 – really good work.  Just a slight tweak needed somewhere.
  • 3/5 – pretty good work.  A bit of a misunderstanding or oversight is present.
  • 2/5 – beginner stages.  On the right track, but at the very beginning of the road.
  • 1/5 – not there yet.  Shows significant lack of understanding, or no evidence of understanding, or this component of the assignment was not included in the project.

The problem here is the disconnect between the descriptor and the grade.  If a 2/5 reveals that a student is in the beginning stages, can we confidently assign a failing grade of 40%?  It seems more logical to assign a grade that is at the lower end of the spectrum of a passing grade.

Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.

The lesson here is that, when designing a rubric, the numeric grades sometimes need to be skewed.  Again, if reporting is done in percentages, the teacher needs to look at the descriptors of the rubric and determine an appropriate percentage equivalent that matches the descriptor, rather than assigning a percentage based on a mathematical computation.  For example, a 90% might be more appropriate for a 4/5 on a rubric, rather than the computational score of 80%.  Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.  When using a rubric, it is often necessary to give each level of achievement a grade that is not mathematically derived.

As a side note, there really is no need to put an actual numeric score on a rubric.  In fact, many would argue that that actually reduces the instructional component of a rubric.  When a numeric grade is written on a rubric, students tend to look at the numeric grade and derive their sense of achievement from that, rather than having to read the descriptors to learn how they did and what they could do to improve.  Putting a word descriptor for each level of achievement (rather than a 5-4-3-2-1) will be more informative for students and parents and will allow the teacher to assign a value for each level of achievement that better matches the descriptors than a grade out of five.


Rubrics can be incredibly effective tools to use to assess students, to teach them, and to show them where they are at and where they are heading, but it is necessary to ensure that our rubrics clearly communicate each level of achievement and are calculated in a manner that is fair and accurate.




The Frustrations of Standardized Tests

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

I’m in agony this morning.  I’m administering a standardized test that is mandated by the Alberta government.  Although I can appreciate an attempt at some checks and balances within our education system, these tests are very frustrating.

  1. Students bear the stress of teacher evaluation

I tell my students that this test is about me, not them; that it’s a test to ensure that I’m teaching the things that I’m told I must teach.  And yet, in spite of that, they are the ones who bear the stress here.  My students are shouldering the burden for an assessment of me.  How is this okay?

  1. They are overdone and unfairly concentrated in one grade

In Alberta, we administer standardize tests at specific grade levels.  So, my grade six students are currently writing five standardized tests (more than that for Alberta’s unfortunate French immersion students).  If we really feel that such standardized testing was necessary, could we at least spread it out and test one core subject each year, rather than jamming a test for every core subject into one year?

  1. Serious grade distortion

This one is frustrating beyond words.  So much has been done in the way of assessment research in recent years, and yet we are not utilizing the findings of this data to ensure that our tests are sound assessments.  There are so many levels of distortion in these tests, rendering them inaccurate and unfair:

  • Cultural references and vocabulary assumptions

Most of my students are ESL students.  Though not all are coded as such, most are fluently bilingual in at least one other language.  As such, many of these students struggle with the vocabulary that is assumed on these tests.  This morning the students are writing a math test, but numerous students have spoken to me about specific vocabulary words that they do not understand.  So, if and when they get a question wrong due to a vocabulary limitation, it will be reported out as a limitation in their math ability, not in their vocabulary.  How is this accurate?

  • A test of test taking abilities

There is some major distortion in this test due to the recording method of the questions.  This morning my students are struggling hugely, not with the mathematical concepts, but with figuring out how to convey their answer in the manner requested.  I have answered a steady stream of questions from students who have calculated the answer to their question but have no idea how to convey their answer in the manner requested in the test booklet. When they get a question wrong because they didn’t understand the way to record their answer, it will be reported out as a deficiency in their math ability, rather than a deficiency in understanding some of the confusing recording methods they were asked to use.

  • A test of speed

The students are given a time limit for their PAT tests.  When students get a question wrong because they didn’t finish the test, it will be reported out as a deficiency to compute that mathematical concept.  They might have full knowledge as to how to carry out that mathematical task, but it will be reported as no knowledge – due to time, not ability.

I work hard to grow in my understanding of assessment and to improve my practice in this area.  I look forward to the day when my attempt at sound assessment is not limited by poor choices that are provincially mandated.

Again, let me reiterate that I do appreciate some degree of built-in accountability for teachers.  However, it frustrates me greatly when I’m at the mercy of higher powers who have developed an inaccurate, overdone, stressful test that I must administer.  I work hard to grow in my understanding of assessment and to improve my practice in this area.  I look forward to the day when my attempt at sound assessment is not limited by poor choices that are provincially mandated.  I’m grateful that Alberta Education is looking to revamp our testing methods, but I have little confidence that it will be an improvement in any of these areas.  I’m curious what other nations do to deal with teacher accountability and would be interested in learning more about how this issue is addressed globally.  I’m not sure what the solution is, but I am convinced that there must be a better way.

Journeying from Group Work to Collaborative Learning: Five Lessons I’ve Learned

Group work is an area in which my classroom practice has changed considerably during my teaching career.  The way I use it today is very different from how I used it when I began teaching, largely due to these five lessons that I’ve learned:

1. Group work is not synonymous with collaborative learning.

Assigning a task to a group of students does not ensure that they will be learning together.  This well-circulated meme sums up this idea:


2. Collaborative learning is a skill that must be overtly taught.

Pointing out the obvious is important – it’s not always obvious to the students.  I try to teach my students to consider the following:

  • Physical positioning is important. Arrange yourselves in a circle, not a line, so that you can hear each other speak.
  • Contribute to the group – share your thoughts. If you are dominating the discussion, elicit other people’s opinions.
  • You sink or swim together. You are a team and are all responsible for the decisions that are made.  “See, I told you!” type of language is not appropriate.
  • Work together.  No one should be ahead or behind the others in the group.  Discuss, make a decision, and then write it down.  Continue to repeat this cycle until the task is completed.

3. Don’t limit the use of collaborative learning to knowledge acquisition. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for individual skill development.

Collaborative learning can be used to slow down the thinking process and make it visible – both of which can be very useful during the beginning stages of skill acquisition.

When I teach a new writing skill, I first model the skill for the students, highlighting the thought processes and questioning patterns that I’d like them to use.  Then, sandwiched between me demonstrating it and having them apply it on their own, I have them work on it collaboratively.  This significantly improves the quality of their individual work that follows.

When having them work collaboratively, I have learned to do the following:

  • Emphasize the fact that they must be thinking aloud, together, and that nothing can be written until they both agree.
  • Ensure that the students know that this will slow down the writing process greatly as compared to writing on their own, but emphasize the fact that the value here is in developing the thinking patterns.  By strengthening their thinking patterns, their writing will become much stronger.
  • Ensure that the students who are paired together are at different skill levels.  The student who is further ahead in their skill development will further solidify their understanding if they are able to articulate and justify their thought processes to their partner.  The student who is less-developed in the skill will benefit from being able to see the thought process be modelled by their peer, in addition to having seen it be modelled previously by their teacher.

4. Assigning a joint grade to a group for work they have done together is inaccurate assessment.

Problem: If the purpose of assessment is to determine how much a student knows or is able to do, one group grade is not accurate.  We can be guaranteed that any given group of students do not each have exactly the same level of knowledge and skill.  When we assign one grade to an entire group, we indicate that they do.  Not only is this unfair to the students, but it is inaccurate assessment.

Solution: Shift the focus to the learning process, not to an end product.  Offer the collaborative learning time as a stepping stone to develop the knowledge or skill that will be required to complete an individual assessment piece that follows.  This will still enable the students to clearly display their own individual level of achievement, but will enable them to utilize their peers as a tool for furthering their own learning prior to completing their own assessment piece.

Caution: offering one grade for all the students for their end product and then giving them an individual grade for their own ‘effort’ or ‘participation’ to individualize their grades is not a solution here.  This method still assumes that, at the end of the project, the level of knowledge of each student is the same.  It also adds grades for behaviours, which distorts assessment (I highly recommend Ken O’Connor’s book, A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, for more information on this).

5. Students can be motivated and interested in collaborative learning without using a graded assignment as the end goal.

If collaborative learning is done well, students will see its value and will be willing to engage for the purposes of their own learning, not for a grade.  Using grades as motivators is a barrier to sound assessment (more of that on a later post) and is not necessary when students find their learning to be relevant, meaningful, and enriched by working with others.

Collaborative learning is a powerful tool.  It helps develop a sense of community in the classroom, fosters a culture of learning, and shows the students how much stronger we are when we work together.  It can help develop thought patterns and offers differentiated learning by giving a role both to those leading and lagging.

Group projects, in the sense of a task that must be completed by a group of students for one joint grade, have seen their glory days and now need to live in the past.  We can do better.