Friday, March 26, 2010

The Folly of Rubrics and Grades

Before I abolished grades, I went through my rubrics stage. I was convinced I could solve my assessment problems if I could just fine-tune my rubric production. I struggled for months trying to create 'student-proof' rubrics that would allow me to consistantly assess their learning. I can't say that the time I spent on rubrics was a waste - because I learned a lot - but what I learned is that rubrics have little to no place in the classroom.

Here is a sample rubric that I would have used years ago to assess writing:

rubric sample

Something about the numbers always bothered me. I found that making the choice for what something would be out of was a huge deal, as it very much affected the grade my students ended up with.

I struggled with what each category should be scored out of. I knew that I wanted to keep the number small. For example, I certainly didn't want to have each category out of 100. I was not interested in trying to differentiate between a 67 and a 68.

For some reason, making these categories out of 4 or 5 or 10 seemed to be a popular way to go. But to this day, I have not reconciled some of the problems that developed from choosing the 4, 5 or 10 scale.

Take a look:

Do you have a preference? If you do, I'm dying to know which one you prefer and why.

As far as I'm concerned there is no choice and here's why:

  • If I pick the four scale, there is nothing in between 75% and 100% which means that in order to get 'honors' (over 80%), I have to assign a perfect grade.

  • If I pick the four scale, there is nothing in between barely passing 50% and 75%. That's a large leap.
  •  If I pick the five scale, it is awfully tempting to just pick 60% as it is a pretty average grade that lots of kids might fit.

  • If I pick the five scale, there is nothing between 40% and 60%, so someone who I'm not comfortable with getting 80% will get the same 3/5 mark as someone I was not comfortable with giving a 40% failing grade.
I guess I could give half marks with these 4 and 5 scales. But where do I draw the line. Would it ever be appropriate to give quarter marks?
And if I give half marks on the 5 point scale, I might as well use the 10 point scale. 7/10 is more aesthetically pleasing than 3.5/5.But if I start to go to a larger scale like the 10 or 100 point scale, can I really say with any certainty what is the difference between a 6/10 and 7/10 or a 67/100 or 68/100?

And if you don't like number or letter grades, there is no shortage of teachers who would rather use word descriptors such as: (read the scales from left to right)

You'll notice that even when teachers move away from numbers or letters, the kids or parents may not. Above, the first choice shows a two point scale - a pass or fail kind of scale. The second choice shows a three point scale and the last option a four point scale. Even though teachers might not be thinking percentages anymore, the kids and parents may do the conversions themselves. A PROFICIENT to them may mean 75%.

Symantics become the largest problem with written judgements like these. For example, some people would rather see the lowest option to say NOT YET inorder to imply optimism and hope, while others may still want more than EXCELLENT in order to really differentiate the students who are the very best.

There is no doubt that there are plenty of people who would love to discuss which scale is better. Teachers could spend the rest of their careers attending professional development sessions where we discuss, argue, bicker and nit-pick over which reductionist scale is better. Some teachers may like numbers, some letters, while others prefer happy faces or words. There may be small, almost indistinguishable differences between these scales, but keep in mind they all have one common characteristic - they are all reductionist in nature. They all attempt to take something as messy and beautiful as learning and reduce it all to a single or double digit.

Alfie Kohn speaks to the false sense of objectivity marks and how so marks and rubrics have misled so many for so long, and how grading can in fact be so degrading.

There is a kind of educational malpractice going on when teachers profess to be able to reduce a child's learning to a symbol.
What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment.

There is absolutely nothing objective about grading, and in 1976, Paul Dressel wrote a brilliant summary of what a grade actually means:

A mark or grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material.

A more profound or practical statement on the subject is hard to imagine.
Grades and rubrics are a solution in search of a problem that will further destroy learning for its own sake.

Rather than spending time asking how can we grade better, we really need to be asking
why are we grading.
If we can agree that reducing learning to a symbol is a kind of malpractice then we can start to discuss how we can replace grading with something far better. And then we need to stop talking about grading altogether and focus our real efforts on real learning.

It's been five years since I used a rubric. I simply don't need them, nor do my students.

For more on abolishing grades, check out this page.


  1. "It's been five years since I used a rubric. I simply don't need them, nor do my students."

    How long has it been since you gave out grades? Last reporting period.

    Just a reality check for us all. Until the reporting periods are eliminated, what's wrong with moving to a 4-point scale? (or 12-point scale if percentage to grade conversion is an issue). Seems better than the 100 point scale. We've had this conversation before (I think) Joe. Yes, we need folks to think more about the ideal (eliminating grades), but are we doing this ideal much justice by only talking about how great it is...and leaving the scaffolding steps (i.e. 100 point to 4 point transition) out to dry? I'm not arguing the end (eliminating grades) - I'm more interested in helping educators (myself included) work within a flawed system, step-by-step, to make changes today that are practical...and still move in the same direction. Is merely pushing the "grades stink..let's get rid of 'em!" agenda more and more the solution?

  2. Joe,
    Can you point those of us who are new to your writing to some older posts on your transition? Have you laid it out step-by-step (possibly in a series of posts)?


  3. I agree in high school teachers are using the same rubric and when i get one question wrong I will go from a 100 percent to a 70 percent.

  4. Joe, I too have some questions that I have tried to find answers to in your previous posts but can't. My biggest question is how do you handle report cards. I know that you have said that is the one place you must finally put a grade. What scale are you forced to use there? What process do you use to decide that grade? I know that is a loaded question BIG TIME, but I still need an idea of what you do. Thanks for all the great mind shaking posts!


  5. Bonnie, to better understand how I abolished grades while still placing a grade on the report card, take a look at:

  6. Ahh...great post. So funny that I could have written this same post! I also had the "rubric" phase as I was trying to eliminate grades. When I got down to a 4 point scale I realized that I was spending 75% of my time telling them what I didn't want then to do.
    Another great post!

  7. I maintain that merging rubrics and grades is like comparing ice cream and Volkswagens. Your anti-grade policies make solid sense and speak to the need to highlight what we really want for and from students. However, I see nothing in your argument that identifies how rubrics - by themselves - are not a useful tool.

    They are a communicate tool for helping students visualize what a product or task looks like at various levels of quality. As adults, we walk around with rubrics in our head all of the time.

    You will decide which comment you'll reply to based on criteria you've established for yourself (excluding of course, time and other factors). You may not consider it a rubric, but it is - you are looking for various degrees of quality in a comment before you'll engage.

    As a commentator who wants to explore your thinking on my comments, my job would be easier, clearer, and more successful if I knew what that criteria was. If you told me the traits of a comment you pass over, I could revise mine so it looks more like what you're looking for and less like what you're not. This is a real world example so it's difficult to argue that rubrics aren't authentic.

    If you argue that rubrics are bad because most teachers use them for grading, then the argument is with the use of the tool, not the tool itself. Kids using screwdrivers as lawn darts does not negate their usefulness when hanging a shelf.


  8. Here are some related thoughts: if anyone is interested.



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