Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment: My Favorite Passages from Maja Wilson's book

Product Details
Wilson, Maja.  Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann, 2006.

I ordered this book right after P.L. Thomas referenced it in his De-Testing and De-Grading Schools session at NCTE. 

The book arrived at my door, along with several other gems I ordered while in Boston (look for favorite passages from these soon), and I took some time yesterday to plow through it.  The timing was perfect since I'd come to a roadblock in the planning of my semester project for my sophomore English class:  how to assess.

First, a confession:  I have used rubrics to grade writing.  I am even a certified 6 +1 Traits trainer.  I believe rubrics are better than a grade at the top of a paper.  But I know they aren't authentic.  I just don't know how else to assess in a grade-hungry school environment.

The book explains the history of assessment, what's wrong with rubrics, and Maja Wilson's approach to assessment.  While I'm still figuring out how to stop grading writing, I can change how I assess it.

First, from Alfie Kohn's forward...

"What's our reason for trying to evaluate the quality of students' efforts?  This is a question we rarely ask, but it matters whether the objective is to (1) rank kids against one another, (2) provide an extrinsic inducement for them to try harder, or (3) offer feedback that will help them become more adept at, and excited about, what they're doing" (xii).

"Studies have shown that too much attention to the quality of one's performance is associated with more superficial thinking, less interest in whatever one is doing, less perseverance in the face of failure, and a tendency to attribute results to innate ability and other factors thought to be beyond one's control" (xiv).

Now, from Maja herself...

She begins with a history of assessment, which I found interesting.  Here she explains how universities' admission policies impacted standardized writing:  "As the efforts of the College Board attested, standardization was becoming crucial in the effort to rank students and their work or capabilities.  The vocabulary of ranking includes variations on three words:  worst, average, and best.  Determining winners and losers, as everyone who has watched a contest of running ability knows, requires common starting and ending points and times...The effort to standardize writing tests and their scoring in the service of ranking would guide writing assessment through the birth of the rubric" (15).

Later, in her chapter entitled "The Broken Promises of Rubrics," Wilson slams home her problem with rubrics:  "If rubrics, developed in the mid-twentieth century, are based on a limited notion of good writing, then we hold students to an outdated notion of good writing when we use them today" (37). 

She continues, "The disconnect between the writing we honor in our own literary lives and the writing we encourage from students is illustrated by our approach to teaching research and expository writing versus the research and expository writing we actually read" (38).

And two more doses of reality from this chapter:
"Rubrics encourage us to read and our students to write on autopilot" (39).
"The reductive categories of rubrics don't honor the complexity of what we see in writing and what our students try to accomplish" (41).

The realization?  A radical idea:
"Each piece of writing might demand an entirely different response, based on its structure, intent, and effect.  In other words, we need to look to the piece of writing itself to suggest its own evaluative criteria" (42).

In later chapters, Wilson outlines her vision for how to assess:

"I wanted my assessment and assignments to honor the rhetorical purpose of writing, be meaningful, to match writing pedagogy, and to avoid reductionism" (69).

"I don't view assessment as something we do after the writing process is complete.  All writers assess writing as we go, hesitating slightly as we make judgments about what works best or what ideas should come next" (89).

"In order to find time for these assessment conversations, I have to give students time to write in class.  I've never walked into an art class where students aren't actually engaged in making art; imagine how silly art classes would become if the teacher expected students to work on all of their projects at home alone, leaving class time for lectures or slides" (90).

No new ideas here--just a well-written reminder to do what we know is right:  to assess students the way we would want to be assessed--the golden rule of assessment.

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