Exactly how can teachers determine whether a student’s piece of writing meets the standard of exceptional versus that of good? How can a child’s science project, which may involve drawing, writing, dioramas, oral presentation, and other elements, be accurately evaluated? How can subtle, gradual progress in the development of speaking skills be measured? One increasingly popular method is rubrics — a type of scoring guide used to assess more complex, subjective criteria. Rubrics enable an evaluation of student performance in situations that more closely replicate the challenges of real life than isolated tests. As such, they support the mandate for authentic assessment stated in national standards across the curriculum.

A rubric is a device for organizing and interpreting data gathered from observations of student performance. More precisely, it is a scoring guide that differentiates between levels of development in a specific area of performance or behavior. Conventional rubrics, such as the Science Journal Rubric pictured opposite, use a range of three or more levels to assess performance — for example, from beginning to developing to proficient. Each of the levels contains specific, measurable performance characteristics, such as “makes few/occasional/frequent spelling errors.” Checklists, which provide specific steps for completing tasks to the highest level of quality, such as the Student Rubric, opposite, are another form of rubric. Combination rubrics incorporate aspects of both.

Why Use Rubrics?

Rubrics differ from traditional methods of assessment in that they examine students in the actual process of learning, clearly showing them how their work is being evaluated. Rubrics communicate detailed explanations of what constitutes excellence throughout a project and provide a clear teaching directive. “Rubrics help teachers clarify exactly what students need to achieve in content and performance standards,” says Rob Southworth, education consultant for District 2, in New York City. Because rubrics set forth precise criteria, teachers are better able to assess skills that may fall outside the scope of traditional testing. Consistent scores attached to each level of a rubric, such as 1 through 4, can provide an objective basis for assigning grades.

When shared with children before a project or an assignment, rubrics can be powerful motivational tools. If students are given the chance to contribute to the content of a rubric, “then it is much easier to hold them to its standards,” says Charlotte Sassman, a kindergarten teacher at the Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Rather than directing youngsters toward past performance (“Why did I get a B instead of an A?”), rubrics can teach them to focus on current and future performance (“What steps can I take to progress to the next level?”).

Student rubrics used for self-assessment, such as “How Good Is My Book Cover?,” pictured above, encourage learners to participate in the grading process. Kara Staunton, a seventh-grade teacher at Reid Middle School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, finds that “the students like feeling as if they have a voice. And surprisingly, they are harder graders than I am!”

Finding and Building Rubrics

Creative, ready-made rubrics are widely available. Among the many excellent resources: 35 Rubrics and Checklists to Assess Reading and Writing, by Adele Fiderer (Scholastic Professional Books, 1998. Grades K–2); Rubrics, Checklists & Other Assessments for the Science You Teach, by Ann Flagg (Scholastic, 1998. Grades 1–3); and The Rubrics Way, by David Lazear (Zephyr Press, 1998. Grades K–12).

For best results, design your own all-purpose rubric template, or frame, that can be adapted for different projects. Base your template on the Teacher Rubric above, filling in criteria that apply to your subject area and the elements you need to evaluate. Know the specific skills that you want students to develop throughout the activity. Describe the criteria that reflect the highest level of performance. And vary your descriptions of accuracy, completion, consistency, quality, and other factors to signify performance levels. A good resource for building your own rubric can be found on Scholastic's Rubric Maker.

Putting Rubrics to the Test

A rubric’s strength is its specificity, which means that individual students can fall between levels, attaining some but not all standards in a higher level. Some teachers find that attaching a plus or minus sign to the level, thereby creating more levels between beginning and proficient, or making checklists within a rubric can help to define progress. And while rubric scores can be translated into final grades, it is important that we remind children that not every rubric score “counts.” Rubrics serve, above all, to inform and improve teachers’ instruction while giving students the feedback they need to learn and grow.