September 27, 2022

The Pitfalls of Trying to Measure “All The Things” 

Are you using rubrics? This blog explores 5 reasons you should be.

The other day, I came across a post in one of the Facebook Groups I belong to that literally began with the word, “Help.” What followed was a plea for guidance on how to avoid spending hours upon hours grading student work. How can we look for “all the things,” comment meaningfully on “all the things,” and assist students with their learning of “all the things” on any one assignment? 

The answer, for most of us is, we can’t. Perhaps if we had only a handful of students in each class it might be possible, but even then, “all the things” is, well, a lot of things. And the question must also be asked: do we need to be assessing students on “all the things” in any one assessment? Probably not. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here. No. The answer is no. Period. Full stop. No. 

While we should ensure that, over the course of the school year, we are covering “all the things” (and let me be clear, “all” in this case refers to the standards we are tasked with teaching in any given year, not literally all the things one could ever learn), there is no reason—and no justification—for attempting to cover all the standards in any one given task. In fact, attempting to do so would not only unfairly burden the teacher when it comes to grading, it would unfairly burden the student who is attempting to demonstrate proficiency with an overwhelming number of skills at one time. So rather than making ourselves, our students, and likely everyone around us crazy as we attempt to tackle too much, let us take a few moments to explore a grading solution that creates a win for all: rubrics. 

5 Reasons We Should All Be Using Rubrics 

  1. Rubrics Provide a Clear Focus: At a bare minimum, the use of well-designed rubrics saves teachers time by allowing them to focus attention on discrete components of student work rather than trying to evaluate each and every component of that submission individually. Much like when we ask students to annotate a text for only x, y, and z components, having a rubric that clearly itemizes the skills or concepts measured allows teachers to focus their attention only on the parts of the submission that reveal proficiency for those particular skills or concepts. This helps us eliminate distractions that pull us away from what we are really evaluating. Because we are now looking for 2-6 elements—as opposed to an unlimited number of elements—we can move through our review more efficiently, scoring and commenting on the issues relevant to that particular task. And because the language included in a rubric gives insight into what qualities are present for each score, the number of hand-written comments teachers feel compelled to include also shrinks. Rather than leaving copious margin notes, we can simply underline the portion of the rubric that addresses our observations and elaborate further only when necessary to clarify.  

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  1. Rubrics Ensure Alignment: Rubrics can function as “proofs” to confirm we are aligning our assessments with the correct standards. Despite our best intentions, it is not uncommon for us to inadvertently design summative assessments that do not actually align with the skills and concepts taught during the overarching unit. When we use a standards-aligned rubric, however, we ensure that the assessments we plan for our students actually match our unit objectives. In addition, the state educational standards themselves often contain specific language regarding what students should be able to accomplish. When developing the rubrics, we can use that language as a guide to create the criteria for each corresponding score. Simply use the standards’ language to inform what a “proficient” score would look like, and then level up for submissions earning an “above proficiency” rating and level down for submissions earning a “below proficiency” rating. Importantly, standards-aligned rubrics save teachers time by providing educators with a roadmap to follow when designing summative assessments and also by helping educators avoid having to loop back to skills and concepts previously taught but insufficiently assessed. 
  1. Rubrics Can Be Used to Resolve Student Questions: One of the most common questions I get asked by students as they are working on an assignment is, “Am I doing this right?” With a rubric handy, you can put the burden on the student to determine the answer to that question, circling back to them only if lingering questions remain. Imagine this scenario. A student asks if they are completing the assignment correctly and, instead of rehashing the directions and going into lengthy explanations, you simply point them to the instructions and the rubric and ask them to compare their work to these two documents. Can they find evidence in their submission to address each of the components their work will be measured against? It is not uncommon for students to realize during this self-audit that they left out an entire component, or that they focused on component x when their work is really going to be measured against component y. Sure, sometimes you still have areas that need clarification, but by the time you address those questions, you will have already saved time on the questions they could easily answer themselves and they will have a better foundation to understand how your answers to their remaining questions will fit into their final product and its evaluation. 
  1. Rubrics Can Provide Informative Data: We often think of rubrics as being something we attach to end-of-unit summative assessments. But rubrics can—and should—be used at many points of a student’s educational journey. Rather than waiting until the teacher reviews and scores their work, only finding out after the submission has been received that there was an issue, asking students to score their work before they submit the assignment, and then using their score to make targeted revisions, means not only that you, the teacher, will get a higher quality submission from students at the end of the process, but, importantly, that the students will have a much clearer understanding of how they earn their scores. Once students recognize that rubrics are used to find and evaluate evidence, rather than to judge a submission, students become much more thoughtful about their approach to creation. I recommend having them include a rationale for the scores they assigned themselvesin each category, ideally with evidence from their draft to support their findings. This is a great activity to ask students to engage in prior to a peer or teacher conference. Students can arrive to the conference with their self-scored rubric, discuss and review their findings, and then develop an action plan to address any areas where revision may be warranted.  
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  1. Rubrics Can Assist with Remediation and Retakes: With rubric in hand, the remediation process can move along quickly. As an entrance ticket to the remediation meeting, ask students to explore their submission against the scored rubric, arriving to the conference with an explanation—as they understand it—of why their submission received its corresponding score(s). Often, students are able to see clearly why they earned their scores at this step in the process. For example, I have had students realize, on their own, that they repeated the same evidence for different parts of their argument, or they were lacking transitions or a clear organization. This saves a significant amount of time during the conference, as student and teacher are now free to discuss only the areas of lingering confusion. Using the scored rubric and conference findings as a guide, the student develops a revision plan which they use to inform their retake process. Their retake is then comprised of a revised submission product, the revision plan they created during the remediation meeting, and an explanation of how and where the student made the revisions in accordance to that revision plan. Beyond saving large quantities of conference time and putting the burden of learning on students, this process empowers students by showing them the steps they can take on their own to ensure success on their work submissions. 

Final Thoughts: 

Some of you may be wondering where, in this process, the non-rubric areas of concern will be addressed. Rest assured, by arguing that teachers should use rubrics to grade student work, I am not suggesting that areas not specifically covered by the rubric should be ignored. I am simply arguing that those areas should not count towards their grade as those issues are not your primary focus for that particular task. There are ways to address those outstanding issues while not overwhelming yourself with grading. Those approaches will be explored in an upcoming blog. Stay tuned! 

About the Author

Andrea Yarbough is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of Artfulness: Formula-Free Creative Writing Explorations for Secondary ELA Classes. Trusted by major organizations with curriculum design and professional workshops, she has extensive experience developing meaningful, effective instruction for students and teachers, resulting in better outcomes with less work. 

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