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  • Sara Needleman

Rubrics, Part 3: Transparency

This post provides a deeper look into the ideas of transparency, one of JumpRope’s Core Values.

As a young teacher, one of the first traditional concepts I questioned was the use of the bell curve. I couldn’t understand how having a certain percentage of my students land to the left side of the high point in the curve was a good thing for me as a teacher. Wasn’t my job to actually teach the students? And if a group of them were either learning marginally or not learning, didn’t that mean I wasn’t doing my job very well? I know I had colleagues who argued that I was doing my job well but the students were not doing their job well. While I agree there is likely some merit to that claim, I maintain that it is incumbent on me as the teacher, to do everything I can to move each of my students to the goal post on the right side of the bell curve. One of my greatest tools in helping students along in this way is to be as transparent as I can with my entire process. The creation and use of assessment tools is no exception.

The earlier posts in this series address the creation of rubrics and steps we can take to ensure their validity. Those posts focus on creating quality tools to guide our students and us as assessors as we evaluate learning. Taking the time to consider what to include in the rubric, which rigor level to assess, essentially, what we value, helps us know how to frame the approach to the assessment task. It makes perfect sense that if we, the teachers, see that task clearly, we should invest time in making sure our students also see it clearly. This tenet, central to transparency, is the same central message in Sharing Learning Expectations. As I discuss in that post, there are key aspects to helping students understand learning expectations. The same is true for helping students understand assessment expectations.

The most straight-forward path to transparency with our rubrics is to review them with our students in advance of the assessment task. This review might include asking students to read through the rubric and encouraging them to ask questions. But, like checking for understanding during instruction, when we say, “does everyone get it?” we are likely to be answered with at least a handful of compliant and inaccurate “yeses”. I prefer to ask students what certain parts of the rubric mean and how they would show that through their own work. I like to give students a sample of a previous student’s work and ask them to use the rubric to evaluate it. This sort of exercise gives us the chance to discuss quality work and how to attain it. I might have the students work in small groups to apply the rubric to a work sample, encouraging them to broaden their own understanding by hearing from peers. I like to share with them my assessment of a sample and why I made that determination. All of this helps them identify aspects of meeting the assessment criteria.

For me, the gold standard of transparency with rubrics is co-creating them with my students. When I show them products previous students have created, and ask them to name the features or qualities they see, I can help them find the language to define assessment criteria. I have known some teachers to create an exemplar in the case where the project is new or they don’t have samples from previous students. I think it’s possible to define criteria in the absence of exemplars as long as the students have a clear understanding of the content and skills they are learning and therefore would be assessed on. Of course, co-creating a rubric is time-consuming and we all know time is always at a premium. One solution I’ve come up with is to spend at least some time with the students either brainstorming criteria, discussing the project or examining exemplars and then sharing a rubric I create. The resources we’d use to help us choose assessment criteria would be the mastery levels, success criteria, or proficiency scales the district or school has established to go along with its standards. In the case that the district or school has not established these criteria, I would use my own versions of them to guide my discussion with the students. I make the rubric available for their feedback for a certain window of time. When I ask for their feedback, I signal that ours is a learning partnership and that I value their input.

When we help our students recognize assessment expectations and feel confident in applying those expectations, we move them closer to succeeding with the assessments. Demystifying our expectations allows students to demonstrate what they have actually learned on specific concepts and skills rather than leaving them to guess as to how to demonstrate that learning. Offering this kind of transparency is one way to actually teach our students what success looks like. As I see it, that is an essential part of my role as a teacher.

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