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Musings about Rubrics

If you are reading this you probably know what a rubric is. If you don't, here's the quick and dirty. A rubric is a grading guide that is available to students. It tells them how their work is going to be evaluated and allows them to evaluate themselves. Rubrics can take many forms. Here is one I recently used with my students:
A rubric I used for a project. What I wrote in the 4 column is definitely a work in progress.
As a science department we are struggling with what mastery with excellence really means.

In our school, as of this year, we grade on mastery grading system. There are 4 "grades" a student can get:
Mastery with Excellence = you understand it so well you can teach it to others
Mastery = you get it exactly as well as you should
Approaching Mastery = you are almost at mastery but not quite there
Not Yet Mastered = New to a skill or no where near mastering it

Now, I don't know if this is the case with all mastery schools, but in our school we are all about the rubric. Not only are there project rubrics (which I have always had a hate hate relationship with) but we also have unit rubrics.  There are rubrics for standards and rubrics for long term learning targets. There are even rubrics for rubrics. Seriously. This is a thing that exists.

This is a unit rubric posted in my classroom with a tracking sheet. Students will mark the tracking sheet at the beginning and end of the unit.

For most of my career I have been a resister of rubrics. I've never been a big fan. I understand the point of the rubric. It's purpose purpose is to let students know what is expected of them and to provide them with a tool that they can use to gauge their own progress. They also allow us to clarify for ourselves exactly what we expect our students to be able to know and do. So, I get it. But that doesn't mean I have to like them.

Here's my rubric beef. Our rubrics typically have 4 columns: mastery with excellence (4), mastery (3), approaching mastery (2) and not yet mastered (1). The mastery part of the rubric is exactly what you would expect from a student learning on grade level. That is the column where you define the general expectations. In the mastery with excellence section you are explaining how students can show that, not only have they mastered the material, they understand it in a way that is deeper or more sophisticated that what is expected. This is where the trouble begins. And it continues with the 2 and 1 column. 

When you are writing the mastery with excellence column you are identifying what students have to do to show you that they understand the content enough to apply it or "take it to the next level". So, here's the problem. How can I possibly identify all the bazillions of ways students can do this? We've also been told time and again that mastery with excellence is not just knowing the next level of science, it's application. So, if my students can do 10th grade science in the 7th grade, that's not necessarily excellence. We have hemmed and hawed ad nauseam over the language of excellence and the answer that most commonly comes up is you know excellence when you see it. But how am I going to write this in a rubric? Hey kids, I can't tell you exactly what a 4 is but I'll know it when I see it. I'm sure that would go over swimmingly with the parents. So, what we finally settled on was just upping the level of Bloom's verbs from the mastery column to the excellence column. And if a kid does something else that you know is a 4 but isn't on the rubric, just give them a 4. We like to call that "breaking the rubric".

On to the problem of the 1 and the 2 column. So. Here it is. What is the benefit of telling the kids what they have to do (or not do as is usually the case) to NOT master the content? For approaching and not yet mastered we have been copying what we write in the mastery column but adding "has not done 1-2 of the following" or "has not done more than 2 of the following". Basically, approaching or not yet mastered is just degrees of not mastered. Shouldn't students be able to look at what is expected of them for mastery and judge against that? Why do we have to say it again? All these words and columns are making the rubric more intimidating and harder to digest. Is it really necessary to define for students all the ways they may have missed the mark? Would it not serve them better to be able to look at what is expected of them and figure out for themselves what they are lacking? We don't need to spell it out for them again. We've already done that with the mastery column.

So, the long and the short of it is, I get why we need rubrics but maybe we need to change how we make them. I am very open to suggestions. Since I am stuck with them for the foreseeable future, how can I make them so they are more useful, allow more student independence and don't irk me so. If you have any suggestions, please send them my way!


  1. Totally support your view regarding the 1 & 2 column. However supporters would say that it is a way of showing the student that they can grow. But that only works if they have an opportunity to repeat the project/assignment/standard which clashes with their argument for pace, rigor and coverage!

    1. I think it would be more useful to them to be able to gauge their progress against what is expected. There is still opportunity for growth. And you are absolutely right about pacing. In the ideal world students are using the rubric all through the project creation and they are looking for feedback. Ahhh, the ideal world.


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