Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Trouble With Rubrics

Kohn, A. (2006). The trouble with rubricsEnglish Journal95(4), 12-15.

In this article, Kohn analyses rubrics in regard to the assessment of writing and finds them problematic and insufficient in terms of assessing student work. By comparing them to letter grades or scores he highlights the way that rubrics are used to measure student achievement and/or provide extrinsic motivation- rather than provide feedback that helps to improve student work and engagement.

Kohn rejects the idea that rubrics should be adopted because they make assessment quicker and easier for teachers. The fact that it is easier to standardize writing conventions mean that rubrics may often be over-reliant on this one aspect of writing, rather than others. Other consequences of the use of rubrics are, according to Kohn, vacuous writing, lack of confidence and unwillingness to take risks.


“research shows three reliable effects when students are graded:  They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in the learning itself.[2] The ultimate goal of authentic assessment must be the elimination of grades. But rubrics actually help to legitimategrades by offering a new way to derive them.  They do nothing to address the terrible reality of students who have been led to focus on getting A’s rather than on making sense of ideas.”

"Consistent and uniform standards are admirable, and maybe even workable, when we’re talking about, say, the manufacture of DVD players.  The process of trying to gauge children’s understanding of ideas is a very different matter, however. It necessarily entails the exercise of human judgment, which is an imprecise, subjective affair.   Rubrics are, above all, a tool to promote standardization, to turn teachers into grading machines or at least allow them to pretend that what they’re doing is exact and objective."

"But I worry more about the success of rubrics than their failure.  Just as it’s possible to raise standardized test scores as long as you’re willing to gut the curriculum and turn the school into a test-preparation factory, so it’s possible to get a bunch of people to agree on what rating to give an assignment as long as they’re willing to accept and apply someone else’s narrow criteria for what merits that rating." 

"A B+ at the top of a paper tells a student very little about its quality, whereas a rubric provides more detailed information based on multiple criteria.  Therefore, a rubric is a superior assessment.
The fatal flaw in this logic is revealed by a line of research in educational psychology showing that students whose attention is relentlessly focused on how well they’re doing often become less engaged with what they're doing."
"Studies have shown that too much attention to the quality of one’s performance is associated with more superficial thinking, less interest in whatever one is doing, less perseverance in the face of failure, and a tendency to attribute the outcome to innate ability and other factors thought to be beyond one’s control.[7]  To that extent, more detailed and frequent evaluations of a student’s accomplishments may be downright counterproductive."

"What’s our reason for trying to evaluate the quality of students’ efforts?  It matters whether the objective is to (1) rank kids against one another, (2) provide an extrinsic inducement for them to try harder, or (3) offer feedback that will help them become more adept at, and excited about, what they’re doing."

"Neither we nor our assessment strategies can be simultaneously devoted to helping all students improve and to sorting them into winners and losers.  That’s why we have to do more than reconsider rubrics."

This article is a damning critique of those rubrics that are as Kohn describes. While these rubrics may make a rating clearer than just a letter or number grade, they show children where they are on a scale that is problematic in its composition and may well have the same detrimental effect that simple grades have. 

However, Kohn's forceful critique of rubrics seems to be limited to a narrow definition that does not fit with the different ways that I have seen rubrics used. Rubrics are not always about sorting students but can be useful in terms of making it plain to students what a teacher is looking for.

Kohn's article appeals to me because ranking kids seems to be the opposite of what a teacher should do. Assessment of children into grades or numbers or categories is time consuming and what are you left with? At best you have a list from which you can formulate next steps. At worst, you have learners who spend more time comparing themselves to others, bruised egos, fixed mindsets and disengagement. Surely it is better to assess children based on what they are doing well and what they need to improve on?

However, I do think that it is good for any learner to have a clear idea about what makes a great piece of work. A rubric can help draw this out. It should be a tool for the student and the teacher in formulating next steps - rather than measuring.

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