Did I really just spend June and early July working on a series of performance rubrics (about 20 hours worth of my life) only to throw them all out in late July with a smile on my face? Well, sort of…
I’ve been creating rubrics for world languages for a long time. Back in the early 90s I taught at an Essential school where we were creating content-enriched units with backward design and performance-based assessment as part of our daily work. I even co-taught a lesson on chemical and mechanical digestion in French with a science teacher, but that’s a blog entry for another time. We got a lot of things wrong in those days: For example, my rubrics were basically checklists of task items. While we missed the mark on some things, we did get a lot of things right (We were focused on the message; we taught grammar in context, we embedded instruction in intrinsically interesting, cognitively engaging contexts). While I would never use one of my “rubrics” from 1993 today (and I cringe when I look at some of them in file drawers at home), getting things “wrong” was an important part of the journey and continues to be. I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of that trial and error. I’ve got to thank Mimi Met whose work I devoured in those days as I was writing a thesis in grad school.
In my current district, we’ve had a department rubric for over 10 years. However, whenever I talked to teachers about how they were using the rubric with students and as a learning/teaching tool, I consistently heard that there was disagreement about how to use it effectively —and most students barely even knew we had a rubric.
So, in June of this year, I began to create a new rubric, one that we could use the way rubrics should be used. Now, before I take credit for self-inspiration to do this work, I have to thank two people. You see, I’d spent the last year or two convinced that if teachers created their own rubrics, they would become more skilled at understanding how to use them. I need to thank WHS French teacher Christine for continuing to advocate for an updated department-wide rubric. I also need to thank Greta Lundgaard, who helped to convince me of the benefits of revitalizing our department rubric rather than leaving it to teachers who were telling me that they didn’t have the skill set yet to do the work on their own (Sometimes it takes someone else to help you be a better listener).
Before beginning to rewrite anything, I knew it was important to have a good working definition of assessment: “…an ongoing process of setting clear goals for student learning and measuring progress toward those goals.” We used to think about assessment as something we do to kids after a few weeks of teaching “stuff.” We now know better: Assessment is part of the plan from the start, critically embedded in the instruction, not separate from it.
Assessment as a part of the instruction is where a good rubric comes in. The real purpose of a rubric is not for a teacher to assign a grade to student work, but for students and teachers to use it to engage in a feedback dialogue about student work. A rubric needs to help students and teachers see the student work in relation to the learning goal and to move student learning forward.
I set to work and created a seventeen-page rubric. Yes, you read correctly, seventeen pages! The series contained a separate rubric for each performance mode and each targeted sub level of proficiency for presentational writing and speaking. I hadn’t even gotten to interpersonal yet. Before writing anything, I reread several ACTFL publications, looked over the many pages I’d highlighted in Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Dahlberg’s Languages and Learners: Making the Match, and I scoured through my many Marzano and Reeves books, determined to come up with an amazing rubric. The draft rubrics I created (all seventeen pages) were beautiful to look at, but were they really practical for teachers or students? At first, I thought so, but not everyone else did. Thomas Sauer, at MaFLA Proficiency Academy, convinced me that while the rubrics were nice to look at, and aligned with ACTFL performance descriptors, they were not practical, and were not what we needed at that moment in our continued growth as language teachers.
So, I did what I thought was a pretty brave thing. I’d come to MaFLA Proficiency Academy with a team of 8 teachers from my middle school and high school —all dedicated, talented educators. I handed my seventeen-page baby over to them and gave them permission to rip it all to shreds as they set forth to spend a week working on rubric development. There was a part of me cringing inside, but the other part of me knew that despite all the rubrics I’d created and fallen in love with over the years, I always broke up with them after a few months or a year. (OK, one demerit for mixed metaphors of babies and breaking up, but you get the picture.) I knew exactly why I was in a cycle of non-stop recreating rubrics; the rubrics never quite did the job I wanted them to do.
My team of teachers at Proficiency Academy worked hard all week with their facilitator, Rita Oleksak, who reiterated to them my permission to throw out everything I’d given them. I appreciated their hesitancy to do so, but appreciated even more the fact that they really did throw out a lot —not everything, but a big chunk of what I’d done. What they ended up with is a presentational performance feedback form (our newly-adopted term, thanks to Thomas Sauer) that will reflect every kid’s work from novice-mid to advanced-low, all on one page. I think it’s a solid feedback form.
Our next step is to support teachers in using the rubric with kids as a teaching and learning tool, to provide the kind of feedback that Marzano (2007) tells us will help move their learning forward. We’ll need to spend an entire academic year calibrating our scoring practices and understanding/agreeing on distinctions between things like detail and elaboration. You see, the magic of a rubric depends on teachers being able to use it effectively, in their giving consistent feedback to students, in scoring student work consistently.
Marzano explains that effective feedback must be:
I’m pretty happy with the new version of our feedback form and truly excited for all 25 of us to dig in and try it on. And…I know I’ll probably break up with this one too —because, after all, I’ve never met a rubric I liked.