Why I No Longer Use Rubrics
Whenever I tell people I teach 7th grade English, I typically get three responses. The first is a sharp inhalation of breath. The second involves some form of apology. And then come the questions: How do I handle the hormones? What about the test prep? And all those papers? Teaching is indeed difficult work. Teachers must navigate a labyrinth of ever-changing standards while negotiating between children, their families, and administration. Rubrics attempt to help teachers by providing a way to streamline the workflow. Efficiency and equity all in one tidy sheet. This is a Faustian bargain, however. The gift of time is accompanied by a loss of professional judgment. The locus of control of our classroom shifts from the professional to the external tool. This essay argues for a reconsideration of the use of rubrics as the primary mechanism for writing assessment. After examining the historical context of the rubric, I attempt to make a case for the use of narrative feedback.
Contextualizing the Rubric
As America entered the twentieth century, our country’s society was in a state of upheaval. Unforeseen levels of immigration dramatically altered the landscape of our urban areas. Advances in transportation helped break apart the traditional small-town dynamics governing much of the country. And the rapid growth of print media provided America with massive quantities of information both relevant and hyperbolic. Social institutions such as public schools attempted to meet the changing demands of a culture in flux. What role should public education play in this new landscape?
Multiple interest groups spent the early decades of the Progressive Era competing for the right to answer that question. Whichever group came out on top would earn first crack at the ability to shape the national debate over schooling and frame education in their own image. The Humanists wanted to use education to carry on a legacy of Western classicism. School as a civilizing machine. The second group, the Developmentalists, was only interested in following the whims of the child. School as a playground. The final reform movement, the Social Efficiency group, pushed for a vision of schooling rooted in the economy and the language of business. School as training ground for work. As the 20th century wore on, the reforms pushed by the social efficiency movement became the dominant mode of thinking about education in this country. Many of the hallmarks of today’s public education, such as testing, demarcated bodies of knowledge, and teacher accountability rose to prominence during this time.
The social efficiency movement aligned itself with the growing scientific management revolution. Scientific management is a theory of organization that attempts to maximize efficiency and eliminate waste through the use of scientific techniques. Think rationally organized systems of production, external incentives, and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. Public education drew heavily from scientific management theory. Politicians consolidated power under the newly created superintendent, instituting top-down hierarchies of control. Information went from those in control to the workers: teachers. Administrators were in charge of navigating student data and issuing mandates to the classroom in a clear chain of command.
Rubrics align themselves with these values. They subordinate the complex, messy process of writing to the machinery of efficiency and standardization. Rubrics break down a piece of writing into discrete components such as punctuation, voice, character development, and organizational structure. Products (student writing) are sorted and ranked according to how closely they align with ambiguously defined perfection. Teachers then give directives to students who are expected to perform in uniform fashion. This classroom paradigm strips both teacher and student of agency and individuality. Everyone is expected to do what the person above them orders.
Fast forward to the 1960s. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 set off an intellectual arms race in the United States. Political education reformers pushed a ‘Back to Basics’ approach, calling for an increased emphasis on math and science in the classroom. With “soft” subjects like writing now under scrutiny, politicians expected schools to prove an academic discipline’s worth in scientific terms. For composition, this meant creating an assessment that was both valid and reliable. A landmark 1961 study sponsored by Educational Testing Services created what many consider to be the first rubric used by schools on a nationwide level. Many teachers and education scholars raised concerns over rubrics, arguing that such a lock-step assessment tool ignored important contextual and local factors. Despite these reservations,. ETS’ rubric became standard practice in classrooms across the country.
The prevalence of rubrics in today’s schools points to a continued cultural drive towards standardization, uniformity, and efficiency. Rubrics have also become a lucrative cottage industry. Educators like Robert Marzano have built careers on selling rubrics. Schools across the country use Ruth Culham’s 6 + 1 Trait writing rubrics. The point here isn’t that teachers have been duped into using a faulty assessment method. Rather that the rubric, an apparatus of standardization born out of the need for efficiency and uniformity, have become the accepted arbiter of composition quality.
The Promise of Efficiency
Cultural zeitgeist or not, the ubiquity of the rubric speaks to its ability to meet a specific need. Teaching is an extremely demanding task. Educators routinely report record levels of occupational stress. Misguided education policies pack more students into each classroom. Politicians require more of teachers while refusing to build in the time necessary to meet the additional demands. A relentless focus on education’s bottom line suggests that scores on a rubric carry more weight than a holistic teacher response. Rubrics promise to help composition teachers navigate these problems. They offer us the illusion of efficiency and equity. They streamline the complex and time consuming task of reading and responding by using a template built on assembly-line economics and standardization.
Reclaiming Our Professional Voice
The biggest sin of the rubric comes from its capacity to hijack and distort the rhetorical purpose of writing. We write to communicate to ourselves and to others and to document the human condition through written word. When we respond to writing through a rubric, we lose this rhetorical imperative. Our responses become fractured and piecemeal, jagged shards more adept at impeding a piece of writing rather than strengthening it. Our experiences have taught us to approach student writing as a technician. We read to diagnose and to fix. This isn’t how I read when outside of the classroom. At home I enter into a text with the hopes that I’ll enjoy what it is I’m reading. Reading and writing are meant to be fun. As teachers we need to revel in the joy of watching our young charges figure out how to express themselves. What do they want to say? How can we help them get there?
As professional teachers of writing, let us work to reclaim the rhetorical purpose of composition. We will suit our feedback to the writing, instead of requiring the writing to suit our predetermined feedback. We should be allowed to respond to student writing as a reader and professional teacher, not a technician. We do this through what teachers commonly refer to as narrative feedback. Narrative feedback comes in many forms. Regardless of the specific method, narrative responses to writing focus on three questions:
- What is the student’s writing goal?
- Where is he/she in relation to that goal?
- How can you help he/she reach that goal?
A rubric can play a role in this process, but what is gained in doing so? By ditching rubrics in favor of more descriptive narrative feedback, teachers are free to rely on their own understanding and command of composition. This type of feedback honors the teacher as a professional educator trained in reading writing. It gives teachers the freedom to grow, listen, and respond to their students. We can come to each piece with a sense of humility and wonder, eager to join each student in the rewarding process of committing thought to paper. Responding without rubrics helps us come home to what drew us to our profession in the first place.