Rubrics: Out of the clinic and in to the classroom

Jennifer Jordan-Kaszuba, Secondary Science Specialist

As a science educator, I find it interesting when a process used in science transitions to the mainstream.  So when I discovered that rubrics were originally used to classify diseases and have only been part of the educational lexicon since the 1970s, I had to check this out.  I found some diseases are not diagnosed based on a rubric, but are straightforward tests as we might expect.  You either have the bacteria that causes strep throat or you don’t.  This is analogous to a multiple-choice exam: you either get the correct answer or you don’t.  But some diseases and disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are diagnosed based on a set of criteria and a point system. (Just so you know, if more than 10 joints are involved and at least one of those is a small joint, you get more points, which in this case is not a good thing and means you are moving toward a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.)  In order for doctors to make an objective diagnosis and to ensure that everyone agrees on a diagnosis, they use rubrics.  Rubrics are used in the classroom for similar reasons.


How can rubrics be used?

Rubrics are used in the classroom to evaluate performance assessments so that students are judged as objectively as possible.  Rubrics should also be used for student goal setting and self-assessment (Kingore, 2007).  Students should be provided a copy of the rubric at the same time an assignment is given so they can set a goal for the grade they want to achieve. Students can self-assess their progress during the time given for creation, and before submission of their finished product, to compare their performance to their own goal.


What makes a rubric different from a checklist?

Rubrics are not just checklists listing requirements for assignments.  Instead, rubrics provide descriptors of performance at various levels for a learning task.  Rubrics include information regarding the expected quality of the work in addition to the quantity.  Rubrics provide students and teachers alike with a scoring guide distinguishing exceptional work from satisfactory work, as well as satisfactory work from unsatisfactory work.  Providing students with clear expectations allows them to assume responsibility for their own learning and performance.


How do I create a rubric?

Ideally a rubric already exists that you can modify to fit your need. (Try searching the Internet for the topic you will be teaching and include the word rubric. There were 731,000 + results for the search “Element Project Rubric.”) Although you don’t always need to start from scratch, let’s assume you are starting anew.  There are multiple types of rubrics, including generic and task specific.  A generic rubric is one which can be applied across a range of different tasks: for example, a rubric that judges an oral presentation regardless of the content of the presentation.  Task-specific rubrics are just that, specific to the project or task the students are being asked to complete.  You can combine a generic rubric with a task-specific one as needed.  For example, if students were being asked to complete an element project and present to the class about their element, we could use a generic rubric for the oral performance portion and a task-specific rubric to ensure they include all of the information about their element that is required.

But how do we know what is required?  This is what we must first determine.  Start by listing all the aspects of the assigned task that will be assessed.  Look at the TEKS to determine the content and/or skills that need to be included.  Next, take your list and determine which of these are non-negotiable.  For example, an element project might include basic properties of the element, history of the discovery of the element, current uses of the element, a model, a poster and a sample of the element.  However, the student who researches uranium will not be likely to provide a sample, so that component may have to be eliminated from the list.  Basic properties, the history of the element, and current uses of the element may be non-negotiables, while the delivery method of poster versus a PowerPoint could be negotiable, with students deciding on their delivery method.  Once we have a list of the components we want to include as non-negotiables, we must prioritize and select the 3-5 elements that define a quality performance.

Next we must decide how many performance levels to use and how to define them.  According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota, an even number of performance levels is preferable so that the middle level does not become a catch all.  Having an even number of levels forces you to make a decision about quality and place it above or below average.  Let’s use four levels and call them Exemplary, Excellent, Acceptable and Unacceptable.  For ease in tracking points numerically, we will number them 4, 3, 2, and 1.  If desired, you can also have a “not attempted” category worth 0 points.  Next, we need to look at each of our components individually and define the performance at each level.  Start with the highest level (Exemplary) and determine what is required.  For example, we might expect a student to include basic properties including atomic weight, atomic number, phase at standard temperature and pressure and number of valence electrons.  Our excellent category might state that three out of the four are included; acceptable might be two out of four; and unacceptable might be one out of four.  This example is straightforward but demonstrates that the difference between a 4 and a 3 should be the same as a difference between a 2 and a 1.

Once you have written all of your statements, revisit them and make sure all of the desired components are addressed in each level.  This is the ideal time to discuss your performance task and rubric with a co-worker, even if they are not in the same subject area, to quality check for clarity.  Another way to evaluate your rubric is to carry out the task yourself and see where you would rank on each criterion; this will help you reevaluate and strengthen your criteria as necessary.  Once you have created and used a rubric with your students, reflect back and make changes to strengthen the rubric for the following task or year.

Some questions to ask yourself as you create rubrics include:

  • Does my rubric reflect performance at different levels of achievement?
  • Are the criteria for each level specific enough that students know what is expected of them?  Are descriptors worded so they are examples of what to do to achieve a given level?
  • Will I, as the teacher, be able to objectively grade this assignment?
  • Should one criterion be weighted more given the TEKS being addressed?
  • Do I need to differentiate the rubric for different levels of learners?
  • Does my rubric fit on one page to avoid intimidating students?




Evaluation Process: Rubrics, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, (accessed October 8, 2012).


The 2010 ACR-AULAR classification criteria for rheumatoid arthritis, American College of Rheumatology,, (accessed October 8, 2012).

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