Rethinking Rubrics: Rubrics that Make You Think

In 2010, my colleague (and mentor) Dr. Sharon Harsh was presiding over a meeting with staff from the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC—our organization) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), with whom we had collaborated for five years. She was summarizing the trends in education from the past decade or so and going out on a limb by making predictions of trends that were soon to influence education. She hit them right on the head, especially with one prediction: learning progressions will become prevalent and guide the work educators do at all levels.

Simply put, learning progressions describe the most likely steps people will take when developing new knowledge and skills. For example, before students can combine fractions with different denominators, they have to recognize what fractions are and understand what they represent. They have to know that a larger number in the denominator doesn’t mean it’s a larger fraction. Later they come to understand how different fractions are related—focusing on how to express two fractions with equivalent denominators, then unlike denominators. There’s more, but that’s a portion of the idea of how some concepts related to fractions progress.

Sharon got this so right! Learning progressions strongly influenced the way new standards were developed. And state departments of education, including VDOE staff in the present, are developing and sharing the learning progressions behind their standards so teachers can better understand how students master standards within and across a grade level. Teachers, too, are developing learning progressions at a finer grain that help them understand how students develop skills and knowledge within a single standard (like the idea of combining fractions above). I find learning progressions really intriguing, but I’m a little geeky like that.

Applying Learning Progressions

I’ve long used rubrics to support my instruction and to score student work. In the graduate class I taught, every activity used a rubric, and the students got all of the rubrics on day one and were encouraged to use them as they worked through activities. I’ve never really given multiple-choice tests. Ever. I’ve also helped a lot of teachers develop rubrics, especially when they need to assign some sort of score or grade to complex problems or projects. In many cases, a multiple-choice question isn’t the best option.

Below is an example of a rubric I created in the past. It’s typical of many I’ve seen. If you’re a student who wants to score well, you don’t make mistakes. As you make more mistakes, your score is lower. It seems logical, at first.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Grammar and mechanics of language The product contains numerous (7 or more) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 3 or more errors in spoken language. The product contains several (4-6) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 1 or 2 errors in spoken language. The product contains a few (1-3) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or no more than 1 error in spoken language. The product contains no errors in grammar, punctuation, or capitalization of written text, or no errors in spoken language.
Solve multistep problems with fractions The student does not show his/her work, presents incomplete work, or inaccurately presents work in regard to the guidelines. The student designs a solution that has more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that has no more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that meets the guidelines with no errors.

While this is a pretty typical rubric, it isn’t really very helpful for promoting learning. Why? It’s not the number of errors that’s important, it’s the kind of errors that students make that’s most important. If a student makes two or three errors, but there’s no clear pattern to them, it may just be a mistake because of a lack of time or sloppiness. That doesn’t tell me anything about what they do or don’t understand or how I need to re-teach them. But when a student makes consistent errors, like using “its/it’s” incorrectly over and over, or writing too many run-on sentences, or confusing larger denominators with larger fractions, then I know what to focus on. I needed something that showed me common errors, as well as that progression of how learners move from being a novice to mastering the standard.

Improved Rubrics

I’ve finally been able to connect that sage prediction that Sharon Harsh made with my own practice. Since standards are based on learning progressions, we should be monitoring where our kids are along those progressions. This helps not just teachers, but students too! Both can see what skills and knowledge they’ve mastered, where they need to go, and even suggestions as to what steps they might take to get there. Some might recognize that this is also a critical component of using formative assessment strategies to support learning, especially as proposed by Margaret Heritage (e.g., Where am I going? Where am I now? How do I get there?).

So over the past couple of years, I’ve been pushing myself to improve my rubrics. Instead of just counting errors, which tells me little about what my students truly know or can do, I’m now designing rubrics that describe the progression of learning students go through when mastering a content standard.

Please note: In the examples, the scoring categories are labeled as Learning Outcomes, but many teachers will recognize that the language used is drawn from actual standards, in these examples, the Virginia Standards of Learning, Common Core State Standards, and a WIDA ELD standard. So, in this way, the rubrics are actually standards-based. In fact, they’re probably more standards-based than any forced-choice assessment can be, at least for sophisticated learning outcomes.

Now when I work with teachers on complex problems or performance tasks, we co-develop rubrics that describe learning progressions. See the examples below created recently with some great teachers from the Crestwood School District in Dearborn, Michigan. These are rough drafts, but even at this stage I can see the progression learners go through for each of these learning outcomes. I learned this from these teachers, but every time I do this, the discussion we have about learning progressions is great.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.  The student’s product does not contain a clearly stated opinion or goes off topic and there’s no evidence. Possibly no reasons. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion, but lacks support through reasons that are expanded or supported by evidence from the texts. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion with some evidence, but the reasons lack coherence, may not be clearly sequenced or organized. The student’s product contains a clearly stated argument (or point of view) with reasons supported by evidence drawn from the texts and is clearly organized and coherent.
Students read informational articles on globalization to consider its impact on their lives (e.g., Internet, mass media, food and beverage distributors, retail stores).   The student’s product includes an opinion but does not include information from the articles. There’s no indication the student has or can read the articles. The student’s product contains phrases or some keywords from the articles but may not be explained or connected to a position related to their lives. The student’s product includes some examples from the articles but they may not support their position as it relates to their lives. The student’s product includes citations of examples from the articles that support their position and relates those citations to their lives.
Make a line plot to display a data set of measurements in fractions of a unit (1/2, 1/4, 1/8).  The student’s product does not create a line plot or creates something different from a line plot. The student’s product contains a line plot with simple fractions (e.g. ½ and ¼), with fractions out of order (because of denominator). Something’s out of order. The student’s product contains a line plot with points inaccurately plotted, so it does not match the data, though the fractions are in order. The student’s product contains an accurate line plot that displays the appropriate data and the fractions are in order.


Summative assessment is just one use of this type of rubric. Now that we’ve described learning progressions for these standards, these rubrics have multiple uses. Teachers can hand them out at the beginning of any unit, lesson, or activity that uses these learning outcomes so students know what they can do to get the grade they want. It saves teachers time because they don’t need to create rubrics for every activity, just for each standard. More importantly, students can use the rubrics to monitor their own progress. Schools wanting to move towards mastery learning or standards-based report cards can also use these types of learning progressions to truly describe what the difference between an A or a B (or other two grading categories) really means. It’s not just a score, it’s a point along mastery. Finally, this type of rubric is helpful when talking with parents. When parents want to know, “Why didn’t my kid get an A?” teachers can show parents exactly where their child’s current performance is along the progression and where they need to get to master the outcome (and get that A!). Maybe in the future, parents will ask, “How can I help my kid master the standards?” Maybe.