Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Is Excellent?

While I recognize their utility and purpose, I've never been a big fan of rubrics. So time-consuming to create, and all those "less than proficient/unsatisfactory" categories that aren't even appropriate for students to consider. Back in 2009, I attended a presentation by Rick Wormeli—author of Fair Isn't Always Equal—in which he advocated the use of a much simplified, more holistic Standard of Excellence over the traditional, multi-column rubric. What a relief to discover a more flexible alternative to the perennially rigid rubric! In a Standard of Excellence guide, only the highest standards are defined and presented to students. Gone are all those mediocre and meaningless categories, such as "proficient," "adequate," "poor," etc. (To paraphrase Mr. Wormeli, "Do you really want your students to settle for being mediocre?")

Image credit: Discovery Clip Art Gallery
What does this look like in my science classroom? I have a collection of help guides that students use over and over throughout the year, and these guides define the standard of excellence: this is what an excellent graph looks like, this is what an excellent data table looks like, this is what an excellent masterpiece caption looks like. No confusion, no waffling. It's so much simpler to say to students, "Your work is not done until you have addressed every item in our Standard of Excellence." I find that students generally strive to achieve the defined level of excellence—they want to do well.

A key to successful application of this model is clearly defining what the standard of excellence looks like and regularly asking students if they have met that standard. I teach my students to self-assess their own learning against the standard before asking me to check their work. I can modify the standard for students with different needs by having them focus on particular items within the standard, rather than just watering down the whole standard.

While good rubrics have their rightful place in education, they are no panacea. We must be careful when applying rubrics to our students—no single rubric can quantify the learning styles of the children we teach. Over-reliance on rubrics can stifle the intrinsic creativity and thirst for discovery our students possess.

Excellent Sample Guides

Additional Reading

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