Reject the Rubric

Strong, persuasive and effective writing is organic. It reflects the thought processes and argument as they are built in each writer’s unique voice. As teachers, we know this. We know it innately. We want our students to know it innately, too. We want them to learn what it means and feels like to own your writing. And like many parts of life, we realize most profoundly what good writing is when we are confronted with bad writing… say, when we find ourselves reading a stack of essays that are identical in nearly every way.

The writing process – meant to give space for a student’s individual interpretation and expression – has somehow become a rote transcription of the obvious (or perhaps, a poorly plagiarized version of our class lectures and textbook readings).

The rubric is to blame.

Like so many pedagogical trends, the rubric movement has its heart in the right place. It’s decades old now, but still going strong for reasons that sound meaningful. Students should know what we expect of them. Students should be given examples of exemplary work and standards. High expectations means communicating clearly about what we want our students to do.

Of course. But that’s not what the modern rubric world looks like. Today’s rubrics look like scripts. More accurately, they look like ad-libs.

As a teach of AP social science courses, I’m thinking specifically of the newly revised history rubrics, but also the onerous rubric packets I received and was taught to model in my college studies.

Precisely how many points is each section worth and precisely what steps must a student take to achieve these points? In AP history courses, the answer today is: two sentences of context, a thesis statement with three controls, three body paragraphs utilizing each document effectively, including four point-of-view analyses, one piece of outside information, and two sentences of synthesized material from another unit or region. Fin!

Rubrics reinforce that writing assignments are about points and grades, rather than about learning, reflecting and communicating ideas.

Rubrics kill thought and promote regurgitation.

Let’s breakdown more closely the AP history rubrics mentioned about. The “LEQ” and “DBQ” rubrics evaluate students on six and seven skills, respectively.

Flaw One: Each skill is worth one point. In other words, in the eyes of the College Board and the AP exam writers, each skill is equal in value. In the DBQ, a student’s “argument development” across the entire paper is worth as much their one sentence thesis. Or even more absurd, worth as much as their two sentence “synthesis,” or ability to connect the events/issues to another time period.

Perhaps I’m alone in this thought, but the value of an essay to me is in its substance and merit on the issue being discussed.

Flaw Two: Each skill is graded on an all-or-nothing scale. Students can receive one point for achieving the skill or… not. (Part of the purpose of this is undoubtedly to be more “fair” in awarding these points, but I’d argue it’s a shortcut not worth taking and probably not more fair anyway). Students must use at least six documents in the DBQ. Using five documents is worth zero points. No half credit.

So, an organized, articulate and original essay that mentions only five documents scores a zero on what is really the “sourcing” side of this essay. An essay that merely lists six documents, without analysis or insight, can earn that point, though.

What’s the lesson of these flaws in the mind of a student (a student who’s already grade-oriented in the first place)? 

The answer is clear and maddening: students are taught to check boxes and follow the script. Their focus shifts from making an argument to fulfilling the rubric. Worse, our feedback and critiques of student work

The questions we get in class – how many sentences, does this count as synthesis – are all the evidence we need of that.

They’re playing a game. We’re playing too.

Worse than the effects this has on student writing are the effects it has on us as teachers. Instead of providing meaningful, constructive and instructive feedback – instead of trying to guide our students to find their own voices – we spend our time counting sentences, paragraphs and points.

Our vocabulary about student writing, like theirs, becomes stuck in the language of an arbitrary point-system. No matter how hard we try, we speak “rubric.” That’s all they see and all they hear. We apologize for not being able to reward work that should be rewarded.

The actual goal gets lost. Students don’t write papers anymore; we don’t assign papers anymore. Instead, they write LEQs and DBQs and SAQs and FRQs… and those acronyms are just short for how to get these five points today. Because while we may be trying our best to say, “embrace the historian inside yourself” our handouts and gradebooks say, “check the boxes, kid!”

What’s the solution?

The best answer is no rubrics. The next best answer is holistic grading – allowing (forcing) teachers to do what they are really trained to do: act as constructive critics and guides in the entire process, not in the points.

Today, though, many schools and districts require rubrics in the name of fairness and transparency. Thus, the answer becomes: the meaningfully-created-but-vague rubric:

  • Based on broad, but purposeful categories for grading. I like my writing rubrics to be focused around structure, evidence and analysis. I put more weight on the latter categories, but a 10-20% of the grade based on structure allows me to acknowledge and critique necessary writing mechanics.
  • Scored on generalized criteria. Avoiding specific point attainment and staying holistic is the most important part here. Perhaps my evidence category is worth ten points. The description will state that “Ideal essays will use specific, historical examples and vocabulary in support of the thesis” and “Provide substantial reference to resources and materials.”

The further we can get ourselves from numbered and task-oriented rubrics, the closer we can get ourselves to what teaching ought to be: our students’ growth. The hours that I have spent this year alone debating, discussing and at times arguing rubric scoring with my colleagues alone is staggering. The number of daily “does this count” online questions we all read is mind-numbing.

And that’s just by thinking about those numbers and before we even realize the opportunity cost of those hours and posts (this post!)… all that time could have been spent on actually teaching my students… or preparing worthy investigations… or providing meaningful, unscripted feedback so that our students actually understand what it means to think and write. 

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