What Have Rubrics Got To Do With It?

It’s time to put your traditional rubrics aside and change the way students learn.

In today’s assessment-focused education system, we must change the ways we assess students. Our focus should be on changing our classrooms into environments that are focused on learning with support from teacher feedback and self-assessment.

With any luck, you still will be able to use those traditional rubrics you have been perfecting as checklists, but that’s about as far as they will go.

Let’s take a look at standards-based rubrics and how they can change the way your students learn.

The Basics About Rubrics

When I began teaching, I spent a good amount of my precious time writing elaborate, detailed rubrics, certain I had skillfully eliminated every last bit of grey space. Without fail, students submitted work that did not meet my standards, let alone the content standards.

Teachers often put everything but the kitchen sink into their rubrics, laying out all their expectations and assuming students will follow their prescription. They take the guesswork out of the equation for students. Although conveying expectations is important, the rubric should not replace teacher feedback. Regardless how specific the rubric is, without feedback from the teacher, the student likely won’t meet the standards.

What’s more, traditional rubrics require students to complete the assignment in the exact way the teacher would. This takes away creativity and opportunities for student-led learning.

Part of the art of effective teaching is the ability to lead students down different paths but ultimately end up at mastery of the standard. That calls for an emphasis on both content standards and life-skills standards.

Standards-based rubrics allow teachers to assess students on standards regardless of how the students demonstrate such knowledge. A standards-based rubric outlines the standard(s) that must be met in the assessment and lets the students decide how they will show they have mastered the content. One caveat: You must provide feedback along the way. Otherwise, you are setting the students up for failure.

Let’s look at rubrics aligned to content standards and rubrics aligned to life skills-standards.

Rubrics Aligned to Content Standards

AMLE talks with author April Zawlocki about Rubrics and Grading

When developing rubrics aligned to content standards, the teacher essentially breaks down the content standard into a given number of levels—ideally between three and six—and allows the standards to guide assessments in the classroom.

I use the following levels:

  • Got It!
  • Almost!
  • Not Yet!

These levels promote a growth mindset and encourage students to focus on learning rather than playing the game of school.

When developing rubrics, pay close attention to how the different levels are described. If you have difficulty describing the elements of each level, you may want to consider changing the number of levels you have in your rubrics. Once you have placed the standard in the appropriate level of the rubric, you can use your content expertise to determine what the lower levels of the rubric should include. Figure 1 shows an example of a content rubric for a Common Core ELA standard. The highest level in this rubric is the “Got It!” category.

Figure 1. Sample Eight Grade Rubric

Not Yet! Almost! Got It!
Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

The beauty of a rubric that is aligned to a content standard rather than a specific assessment is that the students can use their creativity to meet the content standard, increasing their sense of ownership over the assessment and their learning.

Rubrics Aligned to Life Skills

Rubrics aligned to life skills or soft skills address everything from attendance to collaboration. Students should be able to take the life skills they begin to develop in sixth grade and continue to develop them in seventh grade and eighth grade and (hopefully) beyond.

Determine the life skills that are emphasized in your school and then write rubrics for each of them. It would be beneficial for a team of teachers to work together to develop these rubrics, as they will be used schoolwide. It also helps to include student perspectives to ensure the terminology is understandable and acceptable to everyone.

Introduce these rubrics to your students and begin assessing them regularly. The students soon will recognize that life skills are another important aspect of their education and will become much more mindful of them. Figure 2 shows an example of a life-skills rubric for “Work Completion.”

Figure 2. Work Completion Life-Skills Rubric

Got It! The student:
• completes and hands in work on time according to classroom expectations.
• arranges for and completes work after an absence.
Almost! The student completes and hands in work late.
Not Yet! The student turns in incomplete work or has missing assignments.

Prior to implementing the life-skills rubrics, I had an idea of which students consistently turned work in late, but never had a framework upon which to base discussions with the student, my team, or the students’ parents. I simply did not give the students credit for assignments turned in late. The problem with this practice was that in most cases, the students had the content knowledge, but lacked the life skill of completing their work.

By implementing rubrics for this life skill (turning work in on time) and marking students independently on the life-skill rubric for each assessment, I know what students actually know and what their areas for growth are in terms of life skills. Now, I can show parents that their child consistently scores in the “Almost!” level for work completion in nearly every assessment and we can come up with a plan to help the student turn work in on time.


If you have specific expectations for an assessment, provide students with those expectations in the form of a checklist of non-negotiables.

For example, a non-negotiable may be that the students use MLA format to cite their references and that they include citations from three different high-quality sources. This is not a criterion that should be included in a standards-based rubric because this can be evaluated as Yes (the student completed that requirement) or No (the student did not complete that requirement). If the answer is No, the student must revise the assessment until all the non-negotiables are met. Of course, the teacher provides feedback along the way.

Student Self-Assessment

With the standards-based rubrics, it is essential that students evaluate their own progress. I require students to complete self-assessment using the standards-based rubric. This is an excellent way to gauge how much more a student is capable of achieving.

When students self-assess, you get a glimpse into the students’ world. What do they perceive their needs to be? What learning do they believe they still need? How well do they believe they have met the standards? All this information is data that the teacher can use to make instructional decisions.

How Do I Begin?

Ditching those traditional rubrics for standards-based rubrics can transform your teaching. Remember that your content standards should drive all assessment in your classroom, so having rubrics that assess those standards makes sense. Adding in the life-skills rubrics will allow for student growth beyond just academics, which is critical in the middle level.