Rethinking Rubrics for Elementary Writers

Nadia Wrosch and DeeDee Mower

Abstract

Rubrics have been widely adopted as summative assessment tools--as grade guides for both teachers and students. The authors of this article argue that using rubrics for judging and assigning grades is misuse, resulting in students misunderstanding the importance of content, focusing their efforts on avoiding errors in mechanics, and thus getting high grades for mediocre work. Proposing that rubrics need to be rethought and recognized as valuable tools for formative assessment, they recommend emphasizing students' creativity, helping them recognize strengths and needs in their writing skills, and using rubrics as a basis for giving meaningful feedback.

What do we know about rubrics? When you think of rubrics, what picture forms in your mind? For some of us a rubric may look like a tidy efficient matrix to organize criteria to be used to evaluate students' written work. Others may picture themselves sitting thinking about what will go in the matrix, looking at the clock watching precious time go by. Does the feeling you have about rubrics influence the way you create them? We recommend reviewing what we know about rubrics and how they can assist us in the classroom more efficiently, especially in elementary students' writing.

Rubric use has been widespread for a few decades now. Rubrics are popular because they help teachers define the writing characteristics that determine their grading of student work. However, Susan M. Brookhart (2013a, p. 4) stated that rubrics are "descriptive and not evaluative." How do we interpret that as educators? Are we using the descriptions in the rubric to justify judgements of student writing rather than to guide productive evaluation? The descriptions we choose to place in rubrics need to be clear to the students (Sadler & Andrade, 2004) and to us. Word choice within rubrics can make all the difference. Brookhart (2013a) suggested the rubric should be our communication tool with our students in helping them understand the qualities of their own writing (p.11).

This article is designed to enrich teachers' awareness of how we might rethink the use of rubrics, because rubrics are valid as instructional tools rather than judging devices. We begin this paper with current valid criticism of rubrics, especially as they are used to judge and label written work, although we are promoting the use of rubrics. We then review the concepts of writing that are explicit in the core curriculum for elementary writers, which can guide us in creating rubrics. We consider how we might use alternative forms of criteria within rubrics to increase student creativity because we know it is often an underplayed aspect of student writing. We conclude with the argument that rethinking rubrics by incorporating creativity as a component can help students understand how to improve the quality of their own written work. Our purpose is to help teachers to understand in what ways they can help individual students improve in their writing. 

Rubric Critique

We want to begin by critically analyzing how rubrics are being used in classrooms today. W. James Popham (1997) argued that rubrics do not help teachers in designing their lessons. He suggested that teachers tend to use rubrics without any reflection on how analyzing the data from the rubrics could be used to modify or improve their instruction. He also argued that textbook publishers continue to be part of the rubric problem by creating summative rubrics as part of their literacy programs. Once publishers began providing rubrics in their prepackaged programs with the assumption that they would be applicable to the majority of students, rubrics became overly detailed in order to fit that type of majority need. Rubrics soon became more focused on test mastery than on skill mastery overall. Currently rubrics have been used mainly to provide a summative assessment or grade for students rather than considered as a formative assessment. This is a point that is worth considering.

Alfie Kohn's (2006) work asserted that rubrics may be destructive rather than helpful for improving students' writing. He suggested that rubrics have allowed students to comply with the requirements described, but although grades in writing have been higher because of the use of rubrics, the students' writing has been lackluster because they have been denied access to creativity. This also has contributed to the concept for teachers that the writing process is a technical process and not as complex as we know writing to be. Because of the design of rubrics, students can receive high scores for poor, unsubstantive, written work.

Writing Standards

The Common Core State Standards Initiative provides useful concepts to consider in creating writing rubrics, yet they are often not used in this way. For example, the Standards emphasize four writing aspects: (a) the three types of writing, (b) the writing process, (c) the quality of student writing, and (d) practice in writing across all disciplines for real purposes. Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman (2012) suggested a continuum from grade to grade by stating, "Rubrics are most helpful if they are grounded in a K-12 learning progression that links one grade to another, showing progression of skill development" (pp. 196-197). This implies that the progression of writing skills, such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation, is linked to grade level rather than student level. Also the emphasis on skills creates a misconception that improving writing through idea development is less valuable than knowing the mechanics of writing (Baker, Cooperman, & Storandt, 2013). 

Mentor texts, especially poetry, often misconstrue the mechanics of writing in order to emphasize the content. Students are sent mixed messages about mechanics in some of their readings, but they hold fast to the mechanics with their own writing when grades are at stake with summative rubric assessments. If they are continually penalized when mechanics are incorrect, students become aware that the content of their writing is less important. Ogle & Beers (2012) stated, "A rubric used with a writing assignment identifies content, organization, sentence structure, vocabulary, and mechanics as the elements" (p. 48). In this sequence content is only one-fifth of the writing assessment. We can understand why students' written work is becoming lackluster because we have devalued the content in our overuse of rubrics as summative assessments. This paper argues that rubrics fail to help students know how to improve their writing by measuring limited skill sets rather than the creative elements of the content.

For example, the rubric in Table 1 demonstrates that a student might be able to receive a high score on a piece of writing even if the writing content was actually poor, with no depth of knowledge, variety of resources, or originality.

Table 1: Example of a Poor Rubric

 4321
Facts The paper includes at least 6 facts about the animal and is interesting to read. The paper includes 4-5 facts about the animal and is interesting to read. The paper includes at least 2-3 facts about the animal. Several facts are missing.
Graphics All graphics are related to the topic and make it easier to understand. One graphic is not related to the topic. Two graphics are not related to the topic. Graphics do not relate to the topic.
Neatness The poster is exceptionally attractive in terms of design, layout, and neatness. The poster is attractive in terms of design, layout, and neatness. The poster is acceptably attractive, although it may be a bit messy. The poster is messy or very poorly designed.
Grammar There are no mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or spelling. There are 1-2 mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or spelling. There are 3-4 mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or spelling. There are more than 4 mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or spelling.

The only acknowledgement of content in this rubric is the number of facts, not their nature, significance, or development, and certainly not the students' ability to relate the facts or to think critically or creatively about them. Even graphics become countable items. The "no mistakes" in mechanics ensures only that students will not try creative expression because it is too difficult to spell or punctuate.

As we considered how rubrics might be better used as formative assessments, especially in writing, it was evident that emphasizing creativity might lead to ways teachers can reformulate their views about rubrics as summative assessments. Although it may be counterintuitive to the rubrics teachers have used or are currently using, formative rubrics can be a helpful tool for providing feedback to students on how to improve their work as an ongoing process and how to create written work that is communicating something new or solving a problem.

Rubrics as Formative Assessments

This section explains this alternative use of rubrics, beginning with a definition of formative assessment, then discussing how to use formative assessments as communication tools and how to implement rubrics as a type of formative assessment. According to Chappius (2015), formative assessments are "formal and informal processes teachers and students use to gather evidence for the purpose of informing the next steps in learning" (p 3). The definition emphasizes that the teacher gives formative assessments, the teacher works with the students to process the information, and the teacher and the students both take action to enhance knowledge and improve the students' writing. For formative assessment, the role of the teacher is to ask questions to focus attention on aspects for consideration:

  • What are the strengths and weakness of the student's work?
  • What strategies are being used?
  • What possible misconceptions need to be clarified?
  • What selected feedback needs to be given to move the student forward?

Chappius (2015) suggested the students' role in formative assessments can be implemented using two different techniques. The first technique is for each student to use the selected descriptive feedback from the teacher's evaluation to make changes. The feedback is detailed and focused on one or two specific strategies chosen for improvement. The second technique is for the students to self-assess. An assessment is given from the teacher to help the students interpret their work, derive a conclusion, and make changes according to their evaluation of their work (Slomp, 2015). The students then determine what changes would be best. The purpose of these two formative assessment techniques is for the teacher and students to know what needs to be done for the students to be purposeful in their rewrites and more cognizant in their future writings.

Formative assessments can intertwine cohesively with rubrics. According to Brookhart (2013a), "A rubric is a set of coherent sets of criteria for students' work that includes description of levels of performance quality of the criteria" (p 4). The rubric is a communication tool between the teacher and the students. Performance qualities are described in different levels of the rubric to assist the teacher, not in judging performance, but in using the descriptions to assess the performance (Chappius, Stiggins, Chappius, & Arter, 2012, p.183).

Choosing the headings of the levels in the rubric is up to the creator. The rubric can have words, symbols, or numbers to indicate the levels. Chappius et al. (2012) stated, "With the rubric, the level is the score" (p.184). This statement emphasizes the importance of word choice in the level headings and descriptions. Teachers can consider wording for descriptions by thinking of the student expectations in each level of achievement. Thinking about what is expected of students who meet the requirements can be continued on in the same process for students who do not meet the requirements. It is important to keep this question in mind: What are students demonstrating that is measurable and observable?

An essential component of formative assessment is student self-reflection. The use of a rubric will assist in this aspect of student learning (Andrade, Wang, Du, & Akawi, 2009; Brookhart, 2013a). Could a student answer the question "Where am I now?" Could a student answer the question "Where do I need to be?" (Chappius, 2015, p. 12). These two questions should be addressed with students in assisting their self-reflection. These questions allow students to see where they have been and how far they have come. The students are self-regulating their learning as they become aware of the descriptions of the criteria in the rubric and evaluate ways they are using these qualities in their writing. This can allow the teacher and student to begin venturing into creativity through their writing.

Table 2 is an example rubric based on some of the Common Core State Standards that invite creative ideas for third grade writing. It was adapted from a draft proposed by The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (2013). Both the draft and this adaptation were written in terms that could be used as formative assessment to guide teachers in analyzing students' writing and planning more specific third-grade-level feedback for each of them. The version of the rubric given to the students would be specific to the particular assignment and focus on distinct aspects congruous with the students' needs. It would also be written in language appropriate for third graders.

Table 2: A Writing Rubric to Guide Third Grade Teachers in Formative Assessment.

 Third Grade
Report Rubric

Level 1:
Novice

Level 2:
Intermediate

Level 3:
Proficient

Level 4:
Above Proficient

Introduces topic and provides clear, defining conclusion giving focus to the topic.

Does not provide introductory or concluding statement(s). No sense of topic focus.

Provides short introduction or conclusion. Some attempt at topic focus.

Includes introduction and conclusion clearly related to content and showing purpose.

Introduction and conclusion establish meaning and attract interest. Focus is clear.

Develops topic with "facts, definitions and details."

May just repeat the topic or give information not related to it.

Uses some information from a text to present the topic. May include information or opinion not related to text.

Uses facts, details, definitions to develop topic. Makes connect-ions within and across information categories with linking words or phrases.

Gives "clear and compelling facts, details, definitions" supporting topic. Elaborates source information, relates support to topic. Complex transition.

Uses "linking words and phrases . . . to connect ideas within categories of information."

Includes few or misused linking words. Does not indicate relationships. Does not show sequence.

Uses a few linking words such as first, second etc. Sentences do not fit smoothly together.

Identifies logical patterns— cause-effect, comparison-contrast, etc. Sees how sentences relate to main idea.

Describes and elaborates connections in logical, more "academic" way; uses complex transition showing relationships.

Understands and can define academic words including vocabulary specific to the subject matter.

Does not define words or defines them incorrectly. Does not relate words to the rest of the text.

Attempts to define words, but definitions may be confusing. May plagiarize definitions from the text.

Grasps word meanings on 3rd grade level topic/text. Can find term meaning from text or context.

Understands meaning of terms and phrases in academic/domain-specific material. Pulls examples from more than one part of text.

 

Writing Creatively

We conclude this paper with the argument that rethinking rubrics by incorporating the writing standards along with creativity helps teachers provide sufficient feedback for students to understand how to improve the quality of their own written work. We begin with a question: What do creative students do? Some responses we have heard from educators are that creative students can expand ideas, use descriptive vocabulary, reorganize thoughts, and apply thoughts to multiple areas. Brookhart (2013a) identified some additional characteristics of creative students: They go beyond the required tasks to find out answers for themselves; in looking for answers they use a wide variety of sources, including media, people, and events.

When these students find the resources, they organize and reorganize ideas to assist in their learning. If they stumble during their process of learning, they do not stop--they use trial and error to continue. Failure is not an option, and they will find their answers.

Another question develops from these considerations: What do creative students do as they write? Brookhart (2013a) mentioned four important, though somewhat vague, criteria:

  • Involve depth and quality of ideas that include remarkable concepts from a variety of contexts
  • Consult a variety of sources
  • Organize and combine ideas to solve a problem or create new information
  • Welcome original contributions from issues or problems others have not considered (pp. 52-54)

We suggest these criteria because they link to the Common Core State Standards and lead to concepts of creativity that might otherwise be overlooked.

Using these four criteria can provide guidelines for teachers in creating a rubric for students. Teachers can decide which of the four criteria they consider important for students to focus on first. Presenting one criterion at a time helps students to develop individual skills. A teacher who has students who have already developed the chosen skill may use writing conferences to help them begin working on another capability.

How is a creativity rubric useful in practical ways? The purpose of the creativity rubric is not for a grade (Brookhart, 2013b). Its purpose is for formative feedback, giving students specific things to work on in their writing development. When a teacher has a conversation with a student about her or his writing, the rubric can expand teacher and student perspectives to see the student's current threshold in writing development and identify specific areas to work on for improvement (Chappius et al., 2012).

Conclusion

This article has discussed how formative assessments allow both the teacher and students to take part in learning as a way to go beyond the teacher gathering evidence to assign a grade or make a very general plan for instruction. Throughout the article questions were presented to help teachers think about daily practices with students. The following are among other questions that may arise:

  • What criteria do you want to use to assess student work and give formative feedback?
  • How can rubrics be used to inform instruction and learning for the teacher and students?
  • How do I foster creativity in the classroom?
  • Am I making the most of my writing conferences?

These few questions should be considered when planning formative assessments for writing. Allow formative assessments to work for you by acknowledging the information gained as a puzzle piece to the student's understanding of the performance rubric.

Nadia Wrosch is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Weber State University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in language arts and curriculum and assessment. She has taught grades 1, 2, 5, and 6.

DeeDee Mower is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Weber State University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in language arts and social studies. Previous to joining the faculty, she taught elementary students for 19 years in Jordan School District.

References

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The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. (2013). TCWRP informational reading and information writing rubric—third grade. Retrieved from http://connect.readingandwritingproject.org/file/download?google_drive_document_id=0B7BccMltK6LqdXhGM0gxdGVUa2M