First, I finished revising and submitting a journal article about the limits of outcomes-based assessment. I'm not arguing against outcomes-based assessment per se--I'm simply arguing that it has its limits. I'm pointing out that we shouldn't take a rubric-based analysis of a course's "effectiveness" as the final or definitive word on student learning. I'm trying to remind readers that (a) much of what happens through education cannot be quantitatively measured, and (b) some of education's most significant manifestations do not reveal themselves until years, even decades, later. Sometimes, what we're "looking for" is as invisible as a tiny seed germinating underground. But the fact that we can't see something with our physical eyes doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And sometimes, things appear that we might not have realized we were looking for.
Next, I used a rubric to participate in yet another required outcomes-based assessment project. Most of our students appeared to "exceed" our expectations--begging the question of whether this is even possible, or whether we are falling prey to the "Lake Wobegon" trap of believing "all the children are above average." Or could it be--God forbid--that our program actually did a decent job of teaching this concept, and the students did a decent job of learning it? Could it possibly be that students who choose to major in English actually are better at writing than students who choose less writing-intensive majors? Hmmm.... Sometimes, even when we find what we're "looking for," we start to question whether we're really seeing it. If not enough students meet outcomes, we suspect we've failed. If too many students exceed outcomes, we also suspect we've failed.
Then, I sat through parent-teacher conferences for both of my own children. The younger one, her teacher tells me, is performing well on most measures--but the rubric shows she's "developing proficiency" in a couple of areas. I'm concerned, until her teacher reminds me that she's the youngest member of her class, she's still little, and "developing proficiency" is exactly what she's supposed to be doing at this age. Her teacher isn't concerned. Thank goodness she's not yet hit the Age of Ubiquitous Standardized Testing, he tells me; that's the time to "panic." I'm grateful that she has a teacher wise enough to understand that what we should be "looking for" in younger elementary-age kids is progress, not mastery. Let kids be kids. (That is, until it's time to panic.)
The conference for my older child is a little bit more complex. His test scores are not a concern--he's exceeding outcomes all over the place, thereby helping his school make Adequate Yearly Progress under the dictates of No Child Left Behind. His results place him at the top of his class academically, demonstrating that he is probably paying more attention than we sometimes think.
His first-quarter grades, however, don't place him at the top--even though he clearly grasps all the course content. Why? Because some of his assignments "don't correspond" with the criteria on the rubric. He thinks a little differently. His teachers, all of them excellent, recognize this. But the system no longer gives them the discretion to issue grades based on content mastery. They're constrained by the rubrics, limited to assessing what they should be "looking for" (dictated by others), not anything else they see.
We're working to help him improve his rubric-targeting abilities. For whatever I might think of this system or of rubrics in general, my job as a parent is to teach my children how to succeed in whatever context they find themselves in. If their work needs to be tweaked to better "match" the rubric, that's what I will help them to learn how to do. Doing otherwise would be a form of negligence. We all know that whether we like it or not, much of adult life involves figuring out what people are looking for, and complying.
Where would the world be if nobody had ever dared to bust out of the rubric and give the world something that nobody knew they were "looking for"? Where would progress and innovation come from? Where would growth originate? How would change come about? If we've quantified everything, created rubrics to cover every potential contingency, devalued everything we haven't pre-determined to be necessary, and removed any potential for surprise (whether as learners or as teachers), what has education become? What has life become? Nothing more than those in authority telling underlings what they are "looking for," demanding they produce it, checking off the appropriate boxes, and ranking the underlings according to their level of compliance?
Another of the week's tasks was issuing an assignment for my creative writing students--without a rubric. I can't honestly say there's nothing I'm "looking for"--I issued an assignment sheet, because nobody likes to be in the dark. But I kept some things open-ended. After all, we're trying to make art, and what is more antithetical to the creation of art than a rubric? The whole point of creativity is to break new ground, to go beyond the expected and the familiar, to make us "see" in a different way--and in order to see something differently, we have to not see it coming. Good art, whether literary, visual, musical, or whatever, surprises us, provoking a "Wow" reaction--"I never thought about it that way before." Ergo, if I've never thought about "it" that way before (whatever "it" may be), I won't have been able to design a rubric to measure "it."
If I wanted to have some fun while making a point, I could easily design rubrics that would cause William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison to flunk college English. (We could probably do that for just about every renowned writer in history.) I'd tell Hemingway his sentences are too short, I'd tell Woolf and Rushdie their sentences are too long, I'd bash the Bard for using unnecessarily complex vocabulary and inverting his sentence structure, and I'd accuse all of them of choosing inappropriate subject matter. (Hey, maybe that would be a great project to engage in. You know, in my spare time.)
So, no rubrics for creative writing. You'd think the students would be thrilled. But sometimes a funny thing happens when, instead of specifying what you are "looking for," you open up possibilities: Some students panic. If I haven't told them what I'm "looking for," they aren't sure what they are supposed to be doing. I tell them, what you're supposed to be doing is making art. You tell me what matters to you. You decide what form suits your subject matter; I've issued a few guidelines, but it's your voice I want to hear in the piece, not mine.
I did the best I could to soothe the nerves. I provided model pieces from past assignments and from professionals. I further elucidated my philosophies of teaching and writing. I reminded them that (a) it's a draft, not a final, and (b) when it comes to creative writing, my grading methods are non-traditional. I hope I was successful in quelling at least some anxiety. I hope they did some writing this weekend, and I hope they didn't panic.
Rubrics have their place. In certain situations, I find them helpful as a teacher. For my children, they can be useful tools for understanding what needs to be prioritized in their assignments. This is all to the good.
Yet it's also possible to lose our sense of balance--to forget that rubrics should be designed to serve our needs, rather than dominating educational culture so much that instead of rubrics serving our needs, we must submit to the demands of the rubric. Certainly there are times when it's helpful to know what others are "looking for." But there are also times when it's vital to do, say, or create something that perhaps no one was "looking for." How else does the world move forward?
Rubrics seem to have become the "training wheels" of K-12 education, and training wheels--like rubrics--have their place. But leave those training wheels on too long and the cyclist might never learn how it feels to achieve the sense of balance necessary to ride independently. When our children are behaviorally conditioned throughout their formative years to believe all that "counts" is what someone in authority is "looking for," even the most creative among us may become prone to paralysis, unsure of what to say when nobody has told us ahead of time what it is that we're "supposed" to be saying.