Numbers and Levels and Rubrics and Grades – Check #SOL2022

Midterm is here and I am anxious – again. I checked my assessments, flexed rubrics, collated the data, used observations and conversations. Yet, this happens – every time. It doesn’t matter what I might have done to prepare, to give feedback, to support student learning with clear evidence, I still feel an overwhelming sense of dread and panic at report card time.

I just listened to “Grades Have Huge Impact But Are They Effective?” and find relief in the fact that this dread is grounded in pedagogical science. Research suggests that students aren’t motivated to learn by grades, and that grades can actually interfere with learning, in particular, when students haven’t mastered a skill. Arrgghhh! How do I fulfill my obligation to provide a midterm grade while knowing this can be detrimental to learning and well being?

I’ve been struggling with numbers and levels and rubrics and grades for some time now. And it’s not just what it does to learning, it’s the fact that I can’t ascribe a number to the unique craft of writing or the cultural knowledge required for reading.

How do I measure beauty with a number? (I know – beauty isn’t in the curriculum, but it has a place in student lives and I hope they can see their own beauty.)

How do I place a level on writing that a student poured their heart into? (I know – skill and effort aren’t the same thing, but what do low evaluations do when a student is learning the skill?)

How do I apply a rubric to a piece of reading that requires background knowledge outside of a student’s lived and cultural experience? (I know. Scaffold the learning and provide background, but what about the cultural nuances that I miss, and I’m a skilled reader!)

I have so many questions about traditional evaluations in addition to the systemic desire for content control in classrooms. I went looking for answers and cracked open a thin book on rubrics looking for words to strengthen me in this internal wrestling match. These lines pinned me:

What really distinguishes Wilson’s analysis is her willingness to challenge rubrics not merely for their technical deficiencies but on the basis of the goals they serve. That’s a rarity in the world of assessment…She shows that their attempt to standardize assessment in rooted in an error to rank students…(Rethinking Rubrics by Maja Wilson, Foreword by Alfie Kohn, xv)

Wait…”that’s a rarity in the world of assessment” – someone who challenges the deficiencies of rubrics is a rarity? Does this mean that rubrics are mostly viewed as infallible solutions to accurately assessing and evaluating expectations from the curriculum?

When it comes to writing, I’ve observed that most rubrics (Ministry created, student co-created, teacher created, etc.) fail to adequately measure what students demonstrate. Rubrics are cumbersome when the range of written expression is qualified and quantified. LIke the author of Rethinking Rubrics, I wonder if the creative writing of Hemingway and Morrison would score poorly on the syntax of sentences or the jarring choppiness of dialogue. If a writer intends to struggle through dialogue in a parallel struggle with the character, then the writing has been effective. Maybe the writer wants the reader to create their own meaning.

Can a rubric actually be open enough and specific enough for the creative imagination to emerge? Or is this just another set of boxes for students to check, for teachers to check. For me, I think the answer is both “yes” and “no” – there is the discomfort rising in my chest again. I’m not going to find a solution to the discomfort that comes with grading – this is my space to navigate carefully with the student at the center and my signal to check.

5 thoughts on “Numbers and Levels and Rubrics and Grades – Check #SOL2022

  1. I love the structure you use here- the way you “know” the answers to your questions and still recognize that the answers aren’t sufficient. The more I wrestle with grading, the more I realize that grades are (almost) never about growth. Grades serve too many masters to be of any use to their rightful owners, the students themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re asking the right questions, and Maja Wilson is THE one to offer answers. I first interacted w/ her on the ECN years ago. I was not raised in rubrics, so when they dug their ugly claws into writing pedagogy, I balked, and I could never find a good rationale for them—unless they are specific to a speech or the kind used in AP Lit. I believe in assessing based on multiple drafts and doing everything possible to diminish the grading aspect. I often had students self assess based on completion of work (presence), progress, and finally performance: 50%, 30%, 20%. The idea is the most important thing a kid can do is complete the work in a thoughtful way. Then they progress. Then their performance improves. They self evaluate and together we confer on the final grade. Students like class better and feel freer in learning and taking risks when they don’t feel threatened by grades. I don’t believe in reading quizzes and do believe in opportunities to study for an exam (prepare a cheat sheet in advance) and explain learning not on the test for additional points. It’s important students know you believe they can learn and are doing all you can to get them to learning and the grade they want.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ugh. I got stressed out reading this. Literal hives. I hate assessment so much — in the sense that it is performed currently. If I am going to assess, I want the student to be a huge part of it, be cognizant about it, and share their thoughts about it.
    I love how you use research, your own feelings, and it really does feel like spinning, to create this constant cycle educators go through.
    Happy to listen if you want to talk more!

    Liked by 1 person

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