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Rubrics for Teachers: Differentiation and the Slide Rubric

Bert is an English language arts teacher at a middle school.

Rubric Templates

Here is a link to a sample of the slide rubric that I have actively used in my classes. This file is openly shared via GoogleDocs. Be sure to read the rest of the article to see how and why it works so well!


“Man, you’re workin’ way too hard. This stuff is easy!”

“What a waste of time. Why do I even try? I’m never gonna get this.”

Of course, my students never actually said these words to me, but the message was clear in the expressions on their faces whenever it came time for them to turn in an assignment or a paper. There are few things so frustrating to a teacher as the apathy and despondency that are at the root of these statements. Finding ways to help students overcome this is one of the great challenges of the profession.

The best solution I have found to this problem comes in the form of the growth-based Slide Rubric, a concept I developed several years ago in response to overcoming this challenge. Using it, I have found a clear, definable and relatively simple way to effectively differentiate much of the work I do in my class.

My highly skilled students are finally working hard to earn the grades that used to be handed to them, while my struggling students are finally being rewarded with solid good grades when they put in the time to move forward. The Slide Rubric has transformed the spirit of my classroom.

This article describes the Slide Rubric concept and provides you with all the knowledge and tools you need to implement it within your classroom should you find it to be a valuable idea. It is broad enough to be applied at any grade level and in most academic subjects. This versatile and easy-to-use grading system has proved to be a simple and highly effective tool for motivating students in my classroom; I am confident it can do the same for you.


What Is a Rubric?

For those unfamiliar with this educational lingo, a rubric is simply a chart for measuring how well a student completes a given task. The left-hand side lists a series of specific skills or criteria for the given assignment. The top lists a range of levels of success with the given skill from poor to excellent. The boxes on the chart itself provide details describing what a given success level looks like for a given skill (see Sample Rubric #1 below).

Brief Philosophical Foundations for the Slide Rubric

In the interests of efficiency, I’m going directly to the nuts and bolts of how this works. Below I will quickly summarize a few key points to set the philosophical foundations of the system, and then I will immediately dive into the mechanics of making it happen. If you are interested in reading more about the ideas behind this approach, click on the link or simply be sure to read through the entire article.

Here are two essential philosophical beliefs that underscore this approach to assessment and grading:

  1. Grading students according to their growth relative to the standards is far more fair and motivational than grading them according to their strict performance relative to an independently established grade-level benchmark.
  2. It is acceptable—even important—to grade students differently for the same assignment so that the assessment can become a true reflection of their own educational development.

A quick statement about why the slide rubric increases motivation:

Using this system, a student’s grade is based on how much they improve, not how necessarily how well they perform. In this way, struggling students who show growth get good grades. High-performing students may well receive poor grades unless they find ways to actually perform better. Thus, all students at all levels are presented with a challenge that is manageable and are recognized for doing the work required to meet it.


How the Slide Rubric Works

Standard rubrics establish criteria for four to six performance levels generally centered around a specific level of expectation. The middle ground of the rubric is set at that level, the lower end is set for those who function below expectation, and the upper end is set for those who perform above expectation (see Sample Rubric #1, below). Those on the lower end of this spread traditionally get D's and F's, those in the middle ground get C's, and those on the upper end get B's and A's.

Sample Rubric #1: The basic five-step, performance-based rubric (only one row).

Sample Rubric #1: The basic five-step, performance-based rubric (only one row).

The problem is that most students settle into their place on the rubric and get stuck there with very little variation, even when the performance task itself changes. Thus, low-performance students live a life of perpetual frustration while high-performance students sit in passive boredom as their potential quietly evaporates.

The Slide Rubric helps to correct this problem by expanding the traditional rubric into nine levels instead of four to six. These levels are designed to cover a wider spread of skill, ranging from utterly rudimentary to near professional performance (see Sample Rubric #2, below).

The Slide Rubric, opening the doors to student success!

The Slide Rubric, opening the doors to student success!

Now, instead of grading each student on performance according to the same measure, each student can be individually assigned a target performance level on the rubric, and success can be determined based on growth instead of strictly on performance.

Mike's starting to figure this out.

Mike's starting to figure this out.

An Example of the Slide Rubric in Action

To illustrate, let's take Mike, a student who is set at level 3 on the Slide Rubric. This means that if Mike scores a 3 on his essay, he would receive a grade of C. Mike worked hard, however, and wrote better than he ever has before, resulting in a rubric score of 4, thus earning him a final grade of B.

Mike has been working hard!

Mike has been working hard!

Clarissa is learning to apply herself to her work!

Clarissa is learning to apply herself to her work!

Clarissa is a fairly strong writer, so she is set at a level 5 on the Slide Rubric. Unfortunately, she rushed through this assignment (which, of course, never happens in real life) and scored only a 4 on the rubric for her essay, thus earning her a final grade of D. Now, even though the actual quality of Mike’s essay is roughly the same as that of Clarissa’s, Mike earned a B and Clarissa earned a D because of their initial placement on the Slide Rubric.

Clarissa has been slacking!

Clarissa has been slacking!

How can this possibly be fair? It is quite simple. Mike has demonstrated that he learned a great deal of the course of this unit, whereas Clarissa has not demonstrated any learning at all. Indeed, under this system of grading, it is quite possible for a student to create a project that is actually worse in quality than that of another student and still get a higher grade. Why? Because one is growing and the other is slacking.


Practical Considerations for Making It Work

Pretesting Students

It is common practice in education these days to pretest students to get an accurate picture of what they know and don’t know within a given domain of study. This is absolutely essential to making the Slide Rubric concept work. This first assessment allows the teacher to establish an initial position for each student on the rubric. From this point, all the tasks that follow can be accurately measured for growth.

Adjusting Initial Placement

Once any student begins consistently scoring two levels above where they are officially positioned, I then shift that student’s set position up by one (in some cases two, depending on the circumstances). This elevates the challenge for that student, creating opportunities for new growth.

Preparing Students Ahead of Time

After the pretest, I always have a very straightforward conversation with students about how this grading system works, clearly pointing out how, within this system, one paper may actually look worse than another and still receive a higher grade. Children get it very quickly, and the conversations don’t take long when they get frustrated because clarity about the process has already been set in place.

Note: On the rare occasions when I have had to explain this system to parents, they have been universally supportive.

Extended Philosophical Discussion

For generations, success in school has been measured by how well each student meets the established expectations. Back in the year 2000, with the “Goals 2000” initiative put in place during the Clinton administration, the United States began to formalize these expectations on a national level, eventually leading to the standards-based testing around which our educational system is now designed. All of this continues to emphasize the importance of students meeting the established expectations.

In and of itself, this is a very good thing. The adult world of work and living life sets its standards for performance and simply runs over you if you do not meet them. Unpleasant as this is, it is the truth. It is absolutely our responsibility to prepare students for this reality.

Still, it is equally true that not everyone learns at the same speed or has the same gifts as everyone else. Making judgments strictly by set standards fails to recognize the unique nature of human development and individuality. Educators are well aware that students come to their classes with a huge variety of skill levels in any particular discipline and individual growth is the most meaningful progress a student can achieve, regardless of where they might land relative to the set bar of expectation.

But then again, standards matter. The ideal way to bridge the tension between these two approaches, then, is to build a balance within one’s grading system. Students, parents and teachers alike need to be aware of both where a given student is performing relative to the set standards and how well the student is growing. Those below the line need to catch up, those on target need to stay on target, and those above the line need to reach ever higher. Taking both growth and performance together gives the most complete picture. The Slide Rubric helps make that possible in simple and transparent terms.



wayseeker (author) from Colorado on October 07, 2016:


My apologies for taking a bit to get back to you--very busy week. I explain this to students by simply helping them understand that, while high performance is always the goal, growth is actually the measure that really matters. Every person has different skills in different areas. If I asked the students to write a single paragraph, some could do this in a matter of minutes with minimal effort while others would take an entire class period and still have something of lower quality than the other student. Who actually worked harder at this? Who grew? I do not teach college. I teach in a middle school. Everyone growing is the point. They seem to get this.

Oddly enough, I've never had to explain this to parents, and other teachers seem to fully understand once I present as I wrote above. If a parent did ask, I'd give them the same rationale. If you don't move forward from where you are when you walk into my class, what's the point of being there?

I hope this helps!


freire on October 02, 2016:

I'm curious how you explain this system to students, parents, and fellow teachers. Do you just summarize it in your syllabus - is that sufficient? What are some of the biggest areas of push back?

wayseeker (author) from Colorado on February 08, 2015:


Thank you for taking the time to read. I've found this to be a very helpful concept over the years that does not overly complicate things.



Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on February 08, 2015:

Congratulations on your Hub of the Day!

Your article is well written and detailed. I especially like the idea of the "Between" column.

wayseeker (author) from Colorado on February 08, 2015:


As a teacher I have always been far more interested in growth than in performance. This is not to suggest that performance is unimportant. Of course we want every child to perform well. The best way for me as a teacher to serve my students' performance, however, is to work diligently toward their improvement, regardless of where the performance "bar" may happen to land.

Thanks for reading,


wayseeker (author) from Colorado on February 08, 2015:


It is a new way of thinking. Teacher who work with students that have special needs--either on the high end or the low end--have a particularly positive reaction to this because of the way it allows low-functioning students to feel success and it pushes high-functioning students to go beyond their normal fare.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and I sincerely appreciate the Facebook share!



mySuccess8 on February 08, 2015:

The traditional method of grading a student’s performance is relying solely on letter grades, though there are variations to this method. We learned today an interesting variation, called the rubrics, as a concept to grade and evaluate students, towards progressive quality performance improvements. Thank you for sharing this, which at first reading was difficult to understand. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on February 08, 2015:

Very interesting. Will share this on Facebook as some of my friends there are teachers and see how they react to this.

wayseeker (author) from Colorado on May 27, 2012:


Yes, students receive both their grade and their score. One of the things that makes this work for me is that I make no bones about being perfectly honest with them about where they are with their skills. There is no shame in being bad at reading or writing--lots of people are. Those who struggle with at always excel at something else. It's just a matter of figuring out where you're own gifts are and learning to apply yourself to improving regardless of what you are doing. The central question is, "Are you better than you were yesterday?" This is the only thing that really matters.

As for adults, I have not tried it there. I expect they would have a similarly positive reaction so long as honesty was at the center of the discussion.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read,


wayseeker (author) from Colorado on May 27, 2012:


I have found it to be quite helpful and folks seem to respect the idea once they understand it. I appreciate you taking the time to read!

wayseeker (author) from Colorado on May 27, 2012:


You are truly one of the most positive influences I have encountered anywhere in my online writing adventure--and everyone I know who comes into contact with you feels the same way. You rock, and you're support is just so honest and meaningful--thank you!


wayseeker (author) from Colorado on May 27, 2012:


The most significant motivational change comes with those who are not inherently self-motivated. Students who come to it naturally don't really need much help in this way, other than the fact that they begin noticing how their motivation is clearly more valued.

While it's not a magic pill as it doesn't work for everyone. Still, there are a significant number of kids that suddenly wake up and start working.

I so appreciate you taking the time to read!


wayseeker (author) from Colorado on May 27, 2012:


Thank you so much for your well-considered comments. They bring up some interesting points and counter-arguments that will help me improve the hub in the future.

To address your questions, I would begin by saying that my own take on differentiation is broader than what you define within your comment. As I have come to understand it, differentiation simply means changing what happens in your classroom (including instruction, activities, assessment, etc.) such that it reflects the individual needs of the particular students present at any given time.

I feel very strongly that students who struggle with the material covered in my classes need to have an opportunity to feel successful when they make progress, even if they are still well below the established expectation. I am very honest about the reality of where my students are with their skills (notice how the proficiency levels are still very visible in the slide rubric) so just because you happen to earn a “B” on an assignment does not mean you are proficient. I have not lowered the standard, I’m simply choosing to recognize students for making good progress.

That said, some students actually end up with “elevated” expectations because I also feel strongly that those who are advanced need to be pushed beyond the regular expectation. Just because what we’re doing here is easy for you doesn’t mean you get to take it easy—there is always more to be learned!

Most importantly, taking this approach has also fundamentally changed the way I deliver instruction. The students all are able to develop more specific goals around the learning they need to do to move forward on the rubric. As a result, I am able to spend instructional time with those who are behind focused on the details they still need to practice. With the advanced students, I address higher-level concepts they are prepared to tackle.

Through using the Slide Rubric, I regularly have instructional conversations with kids on subjects they are ready to handle—it makes for a far better learning environment for both them and me. Ultimately, students are leaving my classes having learned more via this approach than they ever have before. This, to me, is success enough.

Once again, thanks for taking the time to read,


Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on May 27, 2012:

That's very interesting and not an idea I've come across before. Do you tell the students their score as well as their grade? Also have you tried it with adult students?

Jim Higgins from Eugene, Oregon on May 27, 2012:

I am not a teacher, but this sounds like a great way to motivate the unmotivated and could be a whole new way to teach. I hope all teachers on HP read it.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on May 27, 2012:

What a great concept for helping students realize personal growth is the ultimate goal. You sound like a fantastic teacher! Voted up and up, and socially shared.

kelleyward on May 27, 2012:

Wayseeker, I think this is a unique way of motivating students. Does this work better with students who are self motivated to begin with or does the method seem to work with all students? Thanks for sharing your great ideas! Take care, Kelley

KE Morgan from Arizona on May 27, 2012:

I'm not sure that a sliding rubric is differentiation. While most students do have differing zones of proximal development. I equate differentiation learning strategies as adjusting lesson planning towards student needs to provide the same level of learning for multiple intelligences. Instead of teaching the way students learn, are you just adjusting grading based on lowering expectations?