Reading & Literacy Commentary

A Mania for Rubrics

By Thomas Newkirk — September 13, 2000 4 min read
Will the standards movement make satire (and good writing) obsolete?

Near the beginning of the film “Dead Poets Society,” the English teacher played by Robin Williams forces his students to read aloud from the absurd preface to their anthology. Works of literature, the preface states, can be evaluated by graphing two qualities: importance and execution. Midway through the reading, Mr. Williams’ character tells his students to rip out the offending pages. Art can never be so mechanically reduced.

This movie’s warning is relevant today because we are now in the middle of a resurgence of mechanical instruction in writing. Driven by state testing, teachers are being pulled toward prompt-and- rubric teaching that bypasses the human act of composing and the human gesture of response.

Proponents of rubrics will claim that they are simply trying to be clear about criteria that are too often tacit and unexplained. By using rubrics, the argument goes, we are giving students more precise and analytic reasons for the evaluations they receive. By placing these criteria in the clear light of day, students will come to see evaluations as less subjective, less what the teacher “likes.”

If this were truly the case, who could disagree? The crux of the issue is this: Do rubrics clarify the process of sensitive response? Or do they distort, obscure, or mystify that response? And to answer that question, we need to think carefully about what we do when we read student work (when we are at our best)—and what we want from an evaluator.

Personally, I have never been able to use rubrics that establish predetermined weighting systems. I always cheat. I work backwards, determining the impression or sense I had of the writing, a unitary evaluative reaction. Then I jimmy the categories so that they fit my general reaction, hoping to escape detection. In other words, I am not thinking of multiple criteria (organization, detail, mechanics) as I read, parceling out my attention.

As I read, I feel myself in a magnetized field. I am drawn to—or released from—the text I am reading. Initially, this response is more physical than cognitive or analytic; when the text is working I feel more alert, and a good line or image propels me forward. At other times, I feel slack, unmagnetized, as if nothing is drawing me in, drawing me on. This lack of attraction may come from too little detail (or too much), from a lack of direction, absence of personality or voice, from dialogue that doesn’t reveal character, but the immediate sensation is physical. The student’s text has let me go.

The key qualities of good writing are represented as something the writing has, not does.

Rather than reveal processes like the one I have described, rubrics conceal or mystify them. They fail to reveal the narrative, moment-by-moment process of evaluation. Their formal and categorical ratings belie—or worse, short-circuit— the work of the reader. Terms like “organization” fail to clarify (or even locate) the disruption in the reader’s sense of continuity. Rubrics fail to provide a demonstration of the reading process that can later be internalized by the writer.

The very authoritative language and format of rubrics, their pretense to objectivity, hides the human act of reading. The key qualities of good writing (organization, detail, a central problem) are represented as something the writing has—rather than something the writing does.

All of this, of course, assumes that the purpose of rubrics is to convey response. More often, however, they are used to enforce uniformity of evaluation—as a preparation to test-taking. A striking example appeared in the February 2000 issue of Educational Leadership, describing the way kindergartners were prepped for a drawing test. I will quote from the article so that I might not be accused of exaggeration.

After the teacher explained what elements of the drawing were needed to get a score of 4, she said, “Notice that this drawing shows the ground colored green and brown. There are also a tree, the sky, some clouds, and the sun.” She then showed a picture earning a 3, in which the tree, clouds, and sun were not as clearly defined. After this explanation, she asked each student to create “artwork that met the requirement of the level-4 drawing” and rate the artwork of a partner. Children spent the rest of class time “improving their drawings until all the student pictures either met the level-4 rubric or went up at least one level.”

This is not preparation—it is capitulation. This developmentally inappropriate task is presented not as educational malpractice, but as a “success” for standards-based instruction. Which only goes to prove the education writer Alfie Kohn’s point: that the standards movement is going to make satire obsolete.

Thomas Newkirk is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where he directs the New Hampshire Writing Program. He also works as an acquisitions editor for Heinemann/Boynton Cook.

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