Standards-based Scoring and Standards-based Rubrics, Step III: Scoring vs. Coaching Categories

In Step II last week I concluded that educators should shift from Product-based to Standards-based Rubrics in order to focus on formative assessment of student learning. Additionally, I suggested that “single-point rubrics” didn’t do much to help students master the standards because they are rooted in a summative assessment, fixed-mindset rather than a formative assessment, growth-mindset. This week, I’d like to make the case for why it is necessary to stop thinking about rubric categories as scoring tools, and start using them as coaching tools.

If the dimensions of a rubric are the rows, the columns across the top of a rubric are usually referred to as scoring or performance categories. Sometimes these categories are given words, like “Below Standard,” “Approaching Standard,” “At Standard,” and “Exceeding Standard,” or “Unsatisfactory,” Proficient, and “Distinguished.” Other times, these categories are just numbered 1-3, or 1-4. There are interesting debates on the weight of these words, and the values of these numbers when it comes to scoring, and those can be highly conceptual. When it comes to numbers, there are far more basic debates within schools and districts about whether those numbers should go from 1-4, or 4-1, and how they translate to grades. Again, most schools don’t have a consistent design philosophy here, and that is a real problem for students across classes and grade-levels. The even larger problem, is that all of these debates miss that the original intent of rubrics with more than one category is to give students a scaffold that helps them achieve the targeted standard, or better.

Teachers who see these categories as scores are more likely to use rubrics to score final work. They are also more likely to focus on the numbers and how they translate into grade books, than they are on how the indicators of performance in the categories might be used to scaffold student learning. As a result, they are also more likely to wait to use rubrics until the end of a major project. Worse yet, this tendency to see rubrics as summative often leads them to design a half-dozen Product-based Rubrics for the course of a unit or project.

Students find “Scoring Rubrics” used in this way frustrating. They are often surprised by the rubrics that appear toward the end of a unit or long project, and they find too many “Task Specific Rubrics” annoying because it can be hard to understand how they connect to the general expectations for mastery over the course of a unit or long project. In this regard, Brookhardt is correct to recommend more general-purpose rubrics like the 6+1 Writing Traits Rubric.

Teachers who see performance categories as scaffolds for coaching are more likely to use rubrics to coach and assess formative work. They are more likely to focus on the indicators of performance in the rubric than the scoring categories, and they are more likely to see how these indicators can help students to understand how to transfer their learning to an applied context. If the rubric is a Standards-based Rubric, it also has the benefit of eliminating the need for multiple Product-based Rubrics or Task Specific Rubrics. The the teacher, and the students, can use that single rubric to focus on the standards a student is trying to master while working toward any number of sub-products, or the final product.

In schools where teachers make this shift, I have found that students tend to like rubrics better because they have only one rubric to master, and they see it as a support tool rather than as something used to judge them. How then can we take a single-point, standards-based scoring rubric and turn it into a three or four point standards-based coaching rubric without getting back to Problem 1, time? With only one set of language for each standard, that sounds like a lot of work!

The answer requires more work than simply copying and pasting the standards into your rubric, but not much more. In fact, I’m going to recommend that the next step you take, is to copy and paste the standards into the column to the left of “At Standard,” one I’d prefer we call “Approaching Standard” rather than something so devastatingly harsh as “Unsatisfactory” or “Doesn’t Meet Standard.” The reason for this move is simple. If you look carefully at those standards, you’ll realize that most of them are not “single-point standards” with only one learning target, but are actually compound sentences often joined with and/or conjunctions, or additive sequences that require a student to do A, B, and C in order to be “At Standard.” In either case, it becomes quite simple to use the language of the standards to describe “Approaching Standard” as well. If “At Standard” requires THIS AND THAT. “Approaching Standard” is only THIS, but NOT THAT. If “At Standard” requires A, B, and C, then approaching standard might be A&B, but not C. Copy and paste the standard language, and take away the key indicators.

Here’s an example.

    IF At Standard equals:

Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically. (CCSS.ELA Literacy.WHST.6-8.1.A)

    Then Approaching Standard can easily be coached as:

Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims. (CCSS.ELA Literacy.WHST.6-8.1.A)

That’s really not that hard. After all, a student cannot even begin to organize reasons and evidence logically unless they can distinguish alternate or opposing claims. Nor would merely introducing claims amount to approaching standard. The key coaching point here, is that students need to be able to acknowledge and distinguish alternative or opposing claims to get close, and until they can do that, their teacher will need to support them with instruction differentiated to meet their needs.

Teachers who’ve developed these rubrics tell me that they, and their students, find this makes a huge difference in the way rubrics are used in their classrooms, and in the way students perform (Problem 4). It’s better than any “Goobric” you’ll find out there because it’s tailored to your class and your unit or project (Problem 3). It relies on scaffolded standards-based language to avoid vague subjectivity (Problem 2), and is professionally defensible because it is based on the standards students are expected to know and be able to do in your state. On top of all that, it doesn’t take a lot of time to make (Problem 1).

What you have at this point is what I would call a Standards-based Coaching Rubric. It’s dimensions are organized by the standards necessary to complete the task, and it now provides at least one category of scaffolding that can help students see how to master those standards step by step.

Depending on your school, it’s entirely possible that you could stop right here, and just use this “two-point” rubric without worrying about what a “1” or a “4” means. That said, you’re school may insist that you use standards-based scoring on a three or four point scale in order to convert the categories of your rubrics into grades, and students and parents are almost certainly going to want to know how to get the “best” score. These demands create pressures to keep your practice focused on a summative assessment fixed mindset rather than a formative assessment, growth mindset, but they can’t be ignored.

To make sure you can handle those pressures you’ll need to focus on your coaching, and that means focusing on your students as learners rather than on what the grades say about them as learners. The shift to Standards-based Coaching Rubrics is another big one for teachers, but it’s still not enough for student learners unless they are given the space of permission to take one final step of their own with rubrics we develop. We’ll do that in our next installment, “Step IV: Coaching vs. Partnership Categories.” In the meantime, if you have a Standards-based Coaching Rubric you’d like to share, or thoughts about using them, please do in the comments on this blog, or with me on Twitter!

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