I’m just gonna stop using rubrics.*

*With apologies to Office Space.

Since my last blog entry, I’ve begun reading Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment, and — no surprise — it has me rethinking my use of rubrics. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I was already rethinking my use of rubrics prior to cracking open the book, which I assume must be true of just about anyone who would pick up a book with that title. It’s more accurate to say that the book has me feeling empowered to just stop using rubrics.

Excuse me, I believe you have my rubrics…

Some context may be in order for those just tuning into my struggle. In our school, most student work comes in the form of independent projects. At the end of a project, a student usually earns credit by filling out a rubric, writing a reflection, and conferencing with their advisor. Over the years, we’ve actively tweaked the formatting and expectations for the rubric and reflection, and certainly, my style of conferencing has evolved as well. However, that basic triad has remained consistent from year one through today.

Over time, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with our rubric, a story I’ve already told elsewhere. I thought I wanted to create some sort of rubric/reflection chimera, but recent experiences in the classroom have led me to think that the better solution may be to send the rubric down to the old assessment farm where it can live out its days among its friends the bubble sheet and punch card.

In the past few weeks, two of my new seventh grade students have completed their first independent projects, on the self-selected topics of Edgar Allen Poe and Plasma. I made a gut decision to just not tell them to fill out a rubric. I shared the written reflection guide with them, had their student mentors give them formative feedback on their first drafts before submitting their work to me, and scheduled a time to confer.

Their reflections were pretty thoughtful for a first effort, including some consideration of content:

“In this project I learned how Poe influenced not only gothic horror, but mystery and science fiction as well.”

“I now know a lot more about how energy is collected from the sun and stuff, and also why we don’t use lightning as a power source.”

As well as process:

“I now know the expectations for when I do other projects later on which is extremely useful information.”

“I also learned how to set up a better presentation, and also how to better create notes because of the feedback I got, on how to make text stand out, and also that having paper notes are more distracting than notecards, so I’ll use those (note cards) next time.”

In their conferences, the students chatted with me about their work. They talked about what went well, what they were proud of, what challenged them, and what they would do differently in their next projects. I pressed them to go beyond platitudes about “doing better” or “working harder,” and they rose to the challenge. At no point did I refer to a rubric, nor did either of the students ask me for one.

And… everything was fine! I can clearly tell that the students learned and grew, both of them are already happily at work on their next projects (on Life Support and Comas and The Environmental Impacts of Making Currency), and a vengeful god of rubrics hasn’t descended from the heavens to smite the school.

Given these successes, I’m just going to keep not using our rubric. One of my veteran students has a project wrapping up soon, and it will be interesting to see what he has to say about it. I’m also going to finish reading Rethinking Rubrics — hopefully, there’s not a twist ending — and start in on Mindful Assessment. With 2018 drawing to a close, perhaps 2019 will be my year without rubrics?

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