Beyond The Bullet: Do Rubrics Corrupt Thinking?

Checklist. 3d
Checklist. 3d

There is no checklist in life that somehow spells out how to succeed. There is no step-by-step guide that, if followed correctly, leads a person to wealth or happiness. Yet in school, our over-use of standardized rubrics has possibly created that promise, and as a result, our students and their creativity may have suffered.

Standardized rubrics can give detailed feedback easily and efficiently to large groups of students, and help make the sometimes amorphous task of teaching writing more concrete.

I use standardized rubrics in different ways:

1. I provide rubrics prior to an assignment to be transparent with my expectations.

2. I have students translate rubrics into their own words to ensure that they understand the teacher-ese found in many of these documents.

3. I train students in using rubrics formatively to assess their peers' rough drafts prior to creating final drafts.


However, in the past few years I'm starting to see a trend that worries me. Students, those we differentiate and individualize for, have become dependent on these standardized rubrics, not as a tool to seek advice, but as a definitive checklist towards the A.

After all, when you look up a synonym for "rubric," you find "rulebook" listed. And that's just what many students are looking for. A Lego manual of How-to Impress.

According to Susan Brookhart's book for ASCD, How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading, "Rubrics are important because they clarify for students the qualities their work should have." This is well-intentioned, but many students use rubrics, not as a clarification, but as a formula.

When I assign students work, I give them a list of the elements I would need to see in order for them to earn credit for accomplishing the task. But:

Accomplished ≠ Exceeded

However, more and more students ask for "above and beyond" to be clearly defined for them.

Additionally, more and more parents ask to see a filled out rubric, not to see the quality of the work their student submitted, but to challenge the assessment of a particular bullet point. After all, a bullet on a rubric might mean the difference between a 4 or a 5, if only they push the teacher hard enough.

It's a terrible position to put a teacher in. Yes, we should be able to justify the scores we assign, but we shouldn't have to be pushed into a Lincoln-Douglas debate that requires the skills of a lawyer to fight for each professional decision.

However, it isn't debating with parents that concerns me. It's the fact that more and more students want to skip the feedback step entirely, like being critiqued is a bad thing, and they want a step-by-step guide towards success before attempting the task at all.

The use of standardized rubrics also serves to stifle subjectivity. I get it; I really do. Teachers need guidance and rubrics are a tool to help us assess without personal bias. But without subjectivity, we can't honor the students as individuals and allow for personalized goals.

As Alfie Kohn says in "The Trouble with Rubrics, "Once we check our judgment at the door, we can all learn to give a 4 to exactly the same things." And as a result, we're developing a generation who works only towards that 4 even if they can do better.

We're developing a generation of students who can't take the feedback at all, as if having room for improvement is a fatal flaw.

We're developing a student that focuses more on the bullet point and less on the brain.


Standardized rubrics have become a crutch, and as a result, students have become timid in their desire to challenge themselves and timid in their attempts to produce beyond the bullet.

Furthermore, by over-emphasizing standardized rubrics we've stolen students' ability to develop their own internal rubric of what constitutes great work.

But how can we deconstruct the elements all students must produce and still assess the development of the whole individual child? How can we give regular feedback without trapping our students into needing it? How can we have conversations about improvement if a student might hesitate because their artifact might, heaven forbid, still need something?

The answer just might reside in the rubrics themselves.

Surely we can adapt rubrics and convert them from a more standardized method of giving feedback to one that is both efficient and individualized. There must be a way to use this vital tool to give clarity and transparency in a way that promotes both individualized assessment and valuable criticism.

Here's what I have begun to do:

Step 1: Individualize the table itself. Create a row on the rubric that is unique to each student based on goals that student asks to receive feedback on.

Step 2: Calibrate with the students. Show model pieces (not from that class) in order for them to see what an element looks like as a 2, a 3, a 4, etc...

Step 3: Develop a row focused on risk-taking. A student who genuinely strives towards achievement is one that takes the initial assignment and runs with it. Failed or no, in my book, if a student takes a risk, they get credit for it.

Step 4: Hand-off the job. Have the student fill out their own rubric and justify their own scores. See it if matches your own assessment.

Step 5: Mix-and-match how you give feedback. Don't provide rubrics with every assignment. It trains students to need one with every task.

I'm not saying we need to totally ditch standardized rubrics. They have a place in our education system. But their overuse has corrupted our goals to help students discover their own internal rubrics as they venture out into the world beyond our walls.