Distinguishing Rubrics: Why Standards-based Common Core Rubrics don’t have to be Standardized

As schools around the country make the shift to Common Core State Standards, we’re asking more of our students in terms of a higher level of performance. There are debates about whether this is an appropriate level of performance, especially in the elementary grades, but I think one thing we can ALL agree on is that we should not be asking our students to master more and more rubrics to assess that performance.

It is my hope that Common Core will bring a more common set of rubrics across the curriculum so that the days of a new Rubistar generated rubric for every assignment or project will soon be a thing of the past. Students will have enough to worry about with the new standards, so I believe it is our professional responsibility to replace “rubric fatigue” with fewer, and clearer rubrics.

With that said, I’d like to make an initial distinction about rubrics, and then offer some insight into what creative schools are doing in this regard.

Distinguishing Rubrics

For nearly two decades, we’ve been making what I’d call “product rubrics” for students in order to help them master various learning objectives. It’s good practice, in theory, but in practice we end up with far too many teachers, or teams of teachers, spending far too much time to show students exactly how the teachers would do that project. As a result, these “product rubrics” often contain more language about teacher preferences or pet peeves than they do about the standards students are supposed to master, and students only get one shot at them before they become worthless. Not surprisingly, students tend to disregard these “my way or the highway” rubrics, with most choosing the lowest possible performance indicators just to survive.

By contrast, a standards-based rubric would use the language of grade-level appropriate standards to inform students about the criteria the product must meet. Rather than telling students “if I were you, I’d do it this way to get an A,” a standards-based rubric leaves students the freedom to be creative in their efforts to meet the standards. Such rubrics offer a far better reflection of the sorts of challenges that wait for students in the world of work, where RFPs and bid specs force the competition to show how they might best meet the needs of those letting the grant, or the bid. Because standards-based rubrics leave a space for creativity, they also tend to create more student engagement. Teams compete to meet the standards rather than simply go along to get along with the teacher.

Unfortunately, I think most teachers will probably instantly recognize a “product-based rubric.” I have written a few my self! As for standards-based rubrics, you can find Common Core examples for writing across the curriculum from Smarter Balanced or Turnitin.com, to offer just two. These could easily be used to assess any written work, in any class, and as such offer students multiple opportunities to master the standards over the course of their schooling. Though not student centered, the EQuIP rubrics for math and science at least offer teachers in those fields a common framework. And, if Global Education is your thing, Asia Society’s Graduate Portfolio System (GPS) has done a nice job of developing such rubrics for the range of disciplines taught in their 30+ International Studies School Network schools across the country. Finally, for those interested in standards-based rubrics for skills, rather than content, take a look at the “4Cs” rubrics developed by the Buck Institute for Education.

Distinguished Rubrics

You can, of course, always make standards-based rubric your own, and this gets to the part that I think is really exciting. While some are afraid that Common Core will turn into “Common Bore” because there will be no space for teacher, or student creativity, from what I’ve seen in the field I suspect the result will be the exact opposite.

Standards-based rubrics don’t always have to be standardized, and creative schools are starting to realize this. Although standards-based, all of the above rubrics—most of which are available in .doc form—can be tweaked by classroom teachers, or by whole schools, in order to make a project’s overarching goal, or a school’s mission statement, something more than a slogan on a wall.

First, let’s start at the project level. While a particular project may, indeed, involve argumentative writing, it may not involve every single aspect of the above writing rubrics, and it may also involve something more. The classroom professional has the ability to use the standards-based language of the existing rubric, while tailoring it to a “political” argument about what should be done in Ukraine, or a “cultural argument” about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Electronic Dance Music (EDM) cleaned-up at the Grammys this year. Boring adjectives like “”precise” or “compelling” can be replaced with adjectives, or concepts that are more directly related to topics, and more likely to engage students. In the last year, I’ve worked with teachers in Montana, Ohio, and Florida to shift from “product-based rubrics” to these more distinctive rubrics, and all find this an easier and more engaging way to connect their students to their standards.
But something bigger is happening at the school level, too: a common rubric used at all levels of the school can be similarly tweaked to allow a school to put the language of its mission and values into the student’s hands on a regular, and meaningful basis.

Almost every school has a mission or values statement, and ACE Leadership High School, in Albuquerque NM is no different. Like most schools, it has banners and posters that broadcast those ideas to the students and, as at most schools those things get noticed occasionally, if at all. That said, a couple of years ago administrators at ACE wanted to define 21st century skills in a way that matched those values, and so it decided to take a standards-based critical thinking rubric from the Buck Institute for Education, and make it unique to the school and its values. An architecture, construction, and engineering school, ACE saw a student’s ability to be “client-driven” as central to realizing critical thinking in those industries. Yes, students are still challenged to “think critically,” but rather than do so in a generic, boring way, they must think critically to understand what a client is asking; to understand best practices in the field; and to add value to the client in their business proposals and the execution of their work. ACE students see this rubric in nearly every project they do, and those values become something more than a slogan on the wall. They become a measure of quality work.

Back east, about as far east as you can get in the United States actually, another school is working to align its Integrated Projects with the Core Values and Critical Skills they’ve emphasized for over 15 years. At Ross School, a student’s ability to think about all subjects in the context of cultural history is highly prized, as is the ability to see how the past connects to the future and, sometimes, the future to our understanding of the past. Students hear about these skills from faculty and outside Mentors on a regular basis, but now the standards-based rubrics for Integrated Projects will use aspects of this language to separate satisfactory work from proficient, and proficient work from that which is distinguished. As at ACE, earning Distinguished marks at Ross will now be about standards-based work embodies the values of the school.

What Distinguishes your Rubrics?

A school with a common rubric for writing across the curriculum, or science inquiry, is doing its students (and its teachers) a huge favor. Those two standards-based rubrics alone might reduce the number of rubrics a student sees over his or her schooling a factor of ten! Yet a school that sees how those same rubrics can establish a consistent internal message, one that distinguishes qualities of work using adjectives and/or concepts that are at the core of its mission and values is doing something even better. For while schools may use a “common core” of standards for the foreseeable future, the best will continue to do so in unique ways, that serve the unique nature of their students, and their local communities. Distinguishing rubrics like these aren’t just the measure of the message; they become the unique message of professional learning environments anchored in their local communities.

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