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Rubrics Are Fine, But How Do I Get an A?

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Today's guest blog is written by Thomas R. Guskey, author and Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky.

Rubrics help educators describe student performance at all levels of education. Recently, however, educators have come under fire for the way they translate rubric scores to grades on report cards. Although many believe the problem lies with grades, closer analysis reveals the real problem is the way we construct the rubrics.

Most educators begin developing rubrics by articulating what students must do to meet a standard or be "proficient." From there they identify two or three levels below "proficient" to describe students' progress and one level above to recognize higher or more complex learning.  This approach tends to work well in elementary grades where higher or more complex learning usually means "Above grade level."

Problems arise, however, when applications extend to the secondary level where students and parents have concerns about grades, GPA, transcripts, and college admissions. The question high school students and their parents ask is not "How do I meet the standard?" Instead, they want to know, "What must I do to reach the highest level possible?" Because in most secondary schools that highest level translates to a letter grade, the question becomes, "What do I need to do to get an A?"

Some educators believe this problem can be solved by getting rid of letter grades. But letter grades are simply one of a variety of ways to label categories of student performance. Whether those labels are letters, numerals, words, or symbols makes little difference.

Other educators try to change students' and parents' attitudes about grades, exhorting them to focus more on learning and less on the grades. But such efforts rarely succeed. Attitudes are shaped by experience, and most students' and parents' experience tells them grades are important. In addition, students and parents look ahead to the college application process where, despite recent trends to consider a broader range of student data in granting admission and scholarships, grades still count.

Furthermore, many parents urge their children to strive for the highest level of achievement possible. They may accept the teacher's explanation that the highest level is reserved for truly exceptional performance; that is, work that goes above and beyond the standard. Nevertheless, that is the level they want their child to achieve, especially if levels are tied to grades. For these parents, being "proficient" is not sufficient. They want their child to make every effort to reach whatever level the teacher defines as highest.

To solve this problem, educators need change the way they develop rubrics. Specifically, they need to return to the approach recommended by Benjamin Bloom when he outlined the process of "mastery learning." Bloom knew that no matter how he defined "mastery," certain groups would disagree. So he turned the question back to teachers.

Nearly all teachers evaluate students' performance and assign grades or marks on the basis of those evaluations. If the grades or marks are criterion-based, then teachers have already identified mastery:  It is the level of performance established for a grade of 'A'. So rather than press teachers to define mastery anew, Bloom simply asked them, "Tell me what you expect of students to receive an A?" That level of performance then becomes the learning expectation for all. 

As Bloom described in his classic 1968 article, "Learning for Mastery":

We are expressing the view that, given sufficient time and appropriate types of help, 95% of students ... can learn a subject up to a high level of mastery.  We are convinced that the grade of 'A' as an index of mastery of a subject can, under appropriate conditions, be achieved by up to 95% of the students in a class. (p. 4).

So instead of developing rubrics by starting in the middle and working up and down, we need to start at the top by describing excellent performance. In other words, start by clearly articulating the top level of performance, and then work down. If that represents learning at a higher and more complex level than the standard, then identify clearly what that is. What does it look like?  What kind of evidence or demonstration shows it? How will the teacher recognize it? If some students and parents want to make that level their standard, that's fine. And if "proficient" is below that, then so be it.

Debates about what level of student performance represents excellence and true mastery are useful and necessary. These decisions are matters of choice and involve value judgments on the part of educators. But those are precisely the decisions educators make when they develop rubrics. Students' and parents' frustrations rarely come from the rigor of educators' expectations for students' performance. They come instead from the lack of clarity regarding those expectations and the lack of appropriate support given students to meet those expectations.

Be specific about what it means to achieve at the highest level. Define clearly the criteria used to describe that level of learning and share those criteria with students, parents, teaching colleagues, and school leaders. Identify explicitly what types of evidence reflect that level of achievement and how that evidence will be evaluated. Worry less about what label is attached to that level and more about what we can do to help all students achieve it.

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