I Hate Rubrics and have a Tentative Solution

Any teacher that has a shred of respect for ambiguity is likely with me when I say I hate rubrics.

For starters, they’re graphically unappealing. Grids crammed unevenly with words that are a waste of time to write because what is described in the glory, peak of expectation column is just slightly more careful or precise or numerous than the lesser column to its side. And the supposed glory upper end of expectations serves as a ceiling on the creativity and effort excellent students are willing to expend. They also allow students to get all the points and yet produce a crappy product.

Rubrics come out of criterion-based grading, the idea that if a certain standard is met, every student deserves an A. This is noble, particularly for younger grades. We don’t need only a select few of the best papers to be given the only A grades in a class of six year olds (or even 16 year olds, I would argue). But where rubrics go wrong is that they overspecify the assignment goals. The argument goes like this: if teachers want students to be able to meet a particular learning objective, explain the objective great detail. The rubric can tell students how to align with the teacher goals. And they are penalized if they fail to do so. But teacher goals for a paper, now in many places tied to “state blueprints,” tend to be arbitrary. The writers of state standards have no better a crystal ball of what students need to do to “be successful” than anyone else. And specification is the enemy of creativity or artistry. Creativity and artistry require flexibility and ambiguity. If the teacher tells all the students exactly what to do, what a farce of the world we present to the next generation.

So here is my solution: the BKS Quality Multiplier®. This rubric-fixing idea mitigates some of the problems I describe above. It works like this:

If students produce work of low quality (and low creativity), their point total from the rest of the rubric is multiplied by .7. Average quality work gets multiplied by 1, and excellent quality work gets multiplied by 1.2. See a variation for college work in the example below. In this version, I have described quality of work based on some general principles of academic writing.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 3.44.51 PMThe only drawback to the BKS Quality Multiplier is that it requires a description of what constitutes the different levels of work. It could also have a negative impact on what will already be the lowest-scoring students’ work. If a struggling reader can’t decipher the instructions or the rubric how are they going to manage high-quality work?

A potential solution to this issue would be to use the quality multiplier based on student abilities. The problems this solution creates are many, however, particularly since the “beneficiaries” of the lower standards are likely to be traditionally unsuccessfully students: lower expectations produce lower quality work.

Any ideas?

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