Rubrics for Teachers: Differentiation & The Slide Rubric
“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:
- 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.
- 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 criterion 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 problem is, 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 through near professional performance (see Sample Rubric #2, below).
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.
An Example of the Slide Rubric in Action
To illustrate, lets 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.”
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.
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 where 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
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 straight-forward 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 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.
It is my sincere hope that this turns out to be a beneficial tool for you and your students. I check in on all of my comments regularly, so please feel free to leave thoughts, reflections or questions in the comments below, and I will get back to you quickly.