Rubric Descriptors that Support Student Growth: Focus on Feedback and Action

Rubrics, a common classroom and high stakes tool to measure student learning, tend to describe desired performance qualities of student work on the right and deficits on the left. Oftentimes, rubric developers attempt to quantify student errors by counting or using descriptors such as “numerous,” “frequent,” or “many.” Often such descriptors target the lowest scoring students on the rubric. We often think about rubrics describing the low performers on the left-hand side and the high-achievers on the right-hand side. What if we flipped our perspective?

Students who we often classify as low achieving are typically in earlier stages of content understanding than their peers. The tools these students use to respond to grade level content are often less sophisticated because they have not yet mastered earlier essential skills. If we recognize that there are common performance characteristics of students in earlier stages of learning verses more advanced stages of learning on a topic, we have an opportunity to recognize what students are doing correctly, support their growth through additional practice opportunities that give them credit for rework, and activate them as learners rather than implicitly labeling them as lacking.

The potential for adverse impact

My proposition is that the rubric language we use centered in what students cannot do harms both students and teachers. It harms our students in more novice learning stages by messaging, “You can do almost nothing that is of value to me (the teacher).” This language likely unintentionally shames and shuts down students in their learning. Often students in earlier stages of learning need support in persevering so they can master the content. They need more guided practice, and they need more success. Moving from “many” errors to “some errors” does not provide the student feedback on what to do next, other than fail less. What if we described what succeeding more looks like?

Rubric language centered in a deficit model harms teachers. It misdirects our own cognitive task. When we look at student work, our first question always needs to be, “What does this work show the student CAN do correctly?” We need to compare the context of when a child is successful in the skill verses not. For example, when does the child use a period and when does she not? Often students in third grade are still in early stages of writing development. They may place periods after simple sentences, but when they write a compound or complex sentence, their sentence boundaries become undefined. This often happens as students begin to share more complex ideas. If we don’t look at when students are successful, we miss the why. We miss the next instructional steps: (a) encourage the complexity and (b) handle the sentence boundaries and other such issues at a later revision step.

Building an Actionable Pathway to Mastery

Rubrics should be an actionable feedback pathway from the teacher to the student towards a clearly defined learning goal. Such an approach describes where a student is in their learning and likely next actions the student should take to improve. If rubrics are used as an actionable pathway to mastery, they can become powerful tools of instruction. Describing a pathway to mastery centered in CAN, with an expectation of revision, creates opportunities for students to be successful in moving towards the learning target. We honor where the student is in his learning. We honor that students learn at different rates. We foster a student’s agency in her education by allowing her an opportunity to revise and advance.

Most students (novice and advanced students alike) need opportunities to practice the habits and characteristics of work at the mastery level and beyond in order to internalize and automate those desired skills. Too often we frame and evaluate opportunities to learn from a classroom summative context, forgetting that practicing those harder skills is what fosters growth. Allowing students to revise for mastery supports removing shame from unsuccessful attempts, inspires perseverance, and fosters a culture in which making mistakes is part of learning. It also allows learning not to be a race at the pace set by the teacher. When we create a rubric based on a feedback model of what the student can do and likely next steps to move up on the pathway, we do several things. First, the process of using such rubrics and examples of student work allows us to model the success criteria. Second, we help students become experts in their own learning. They may self-assess and observe the successive learning targets they must meet to get to mastery. Finally, we demonstrate for students how to be successful. Not only is this good formative assessment practice, it is also a hallmark of high-quality instruction.

Creation Steps

Consider this target: “Grade 6 band students will improvise an 8-measure duple rhythm pattern in the same tempo as the prompt on their instrument.” This is often done in a call and response context. What evidence do you need to hear to draw a conclusion that a student can do this?

1: Document the specific qualities of performance you want to hear. Avoid words such “bad” or “good” to describe student work and avoid counting based descriptors such as “many, frequent, and sometimes.” In my example, the goal is to elicit a student-improvised, eight-beat rhythm pattern that is different from the prompt while maintaining the prompt context —the same tempo, meter, and types of rhythm patterns. I expect to hear students respond to the prompt on their instrument using any combination of sixteenth notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes, and corresponding rests because this has been the focus of instruction. I expect students to begin their response on the downbeat following the 8-measure prompt and to be a complete musical thought with a beginning, middle, and an end.

2. Brainstorm the types of performances that you expect to hear of students in earlier stages of learning.

When developing my pathway, I consider what students in earlier stages of rhythm development might do. They might:

• repeat the teacher-delivered phrase with consistent tempo, and some will do so with inconsistent tempo.

• perform a pattern with a tempo and meter that changes so rapidly, the I cannot establish a context for the performance to give back a response.

• not feel the phrase as a beginning, middle, and end and will therefore play less than or more than eight beats which does not lead to a sense of finality.

• perform a phrase as a beginning, middle, and end with an established tempo in the beginning but rush near the end.

3. Brainstorm the types of performances that you expect to hear of students in more advanced stages of learning.

A more advanced student might perform a different eight-beat pattern at the same consistent tempo and meter as the prompt, have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and incorporate rhythms that are traditionally more difficult such as a dotted eighth-sixteenth note.

4. Sequence what you have brainstormed regarding what students CAN do from earlier stages of learning to more advanced.

As I sort and sequence my brainstorming, I often notice gaps in my descriptions. I develop other levels of performance, I edit, I iterate. I also investigate theories of how students learn a particular concept and corresponding research evidence. This type of practice informs how to sequence features of student growth. You want your pathway to mastery to include important waypoints along the continuum (scale) of learning, and you want to write the rubric to the students.

5. Informally try out your pathway to mastery rubric with your students during instruction using a different instructional prompt that has similar characteristics as your assessment prompt. With music you want to record student improvisations so your class can co-develop and refine the rubric with you. In writing or in mathematics, for example, these responses can be captured digitally or on paper. Sharing student work (without students knowing who) during this rubric refinement time allows students to analyze what they did correctly. It allows you to provide feedback to the class for each stage. For example, if some students are rushing the last few beats would working with a metronome support the student? Do they rush or slow down on sixteenth notes because they are working to coordinate their tonguing with what they hear in their heads? Would practicing tonguing sixteenth-note and eight-note patterns support them? Should more advanced students be introduced to learning a more advanced rhythm? As you listen to performances together, explicitly match the stage of learning to your pathway. Brainstorm with students what the next action might be. This reinforces the notion that everyone in the class has more to learn. Ensure you add the feedback in your rubric.

Here is an example descriptor based on the stage where I identified the student might not feel the phrase as having a beginning, middle, and end and will therefore play less than or more than eight beats which does not lead to a sense of finality.

Descriptor: You performed a different pattern than the prompt using a combination of sixteenth notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, and half notes. Your pattern had a beginning and a middle, but because you used fewer than or more than 8 beats, you want to listen to your recording and count how many beats your improvisation had. Practice having the rhythmic motion of your response leading to a sense of closure at the end of the eight-beats. Listen to call and response sample performances.

The connection to the literature on feedback

The pathway to mastery rubric that I am describing commingles the purposes of a rubric to measure student learning with practices of effective feedback. This approach provides students information on how to move towards mastering the learning target (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). It reinforces the criteria for success by documenting what students did correctly and provides suggested follow-up actions.

When you are ready to administer your assessment prompt record the student response. Match the performance to the pathway. Return both the pathway to mastery rubric and the recording to the student. The students can connect the criteria and the processes to their own work, they can work to refine, and they can return to try again. You, in the meantime, have the opportunity to move on in instruction, if you would like. In my own classroom, I allowed additional attempt opportunities before school, after school, and on preset Fridays during the month. Using such an approach fosters a culture that privileges self-regulation. Students can choose to bank their grade or work to master the learning target. The key is to be open to changing students grades as they move up the pathway to mastery rubric (and with an improvisation, you want their rhythm pattern to be different and improved upon follow up).

Flipping our perspective and creation of rubrics from a deficit model of assessment to formative model of assessment helps us recognize students who are in earlier stages of content understanding. This in turn helps us understand why students need more opportunities to revise, and what students likely need to learn next. If we want students to grow in their knowledge and skills we have to honor what they know and can do. We have to give them multiple opportunities to meet the success criteria and recognize there is continuum of readiness for tasks in our class. That continuum effects how long it may take a student to master the learning target. We may assess less under this model by focusing on big ideas, and we might instruct more because we are flipping assessment tasks into instructional opportunities. This process also means we need high quality, engaging tasks for students. We also need to reconceptualize ourselves as coach. This is a transition from more traditional grading practices (which I will address in my next blog), that allow students to be left behind, to more modern ones that move students forward. I know. This is easier said than done, but isn’t the outcome worth it?

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