The Folly of Rubrics and Grades
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The Folly of Rubrics and Grades

The Folly of Rubrics and Grades

Before I abolished grades, I went through my rubrics stage. I was convinced I could solve my assessment problems if I could just fine-tune my rubric production. I struggled for months trying to create ‘student-proof’ rubrics that would allow me to consistantly assess their learning. I can’t say that the time I spent on rubrics was a waste – because I learned a lot – but what I learned is that rubrics have little to no place in the classroom.

 Here is a sample rubric that I would have used years ago to assess writing:

 rubric sample

 Something about the numbers always bothered me. I found that making the choice for what something would be out of was a huge deal, as it very much affected the grade my students ended up with.

 I struggled with what each category should be scored out of. I knew that I wanted to keep the number small. For example, I certainly didn’t want to have each category out of 100. I was not interested in trying to differentiate between a 67 and a 68.

 For some reason, making these categories out of 4 or 5 or 10 seemed to be a popular way to go. But to this day, I have not reconciled some of the problems that developed from choosing the 4, 5 or 10 scale.

 Take a look:


 Do you have a preference? If you do, I’m dying to know which one you prefer and why.

 As far as I’m concerned there is no choice and here’s why:

  •  If I pick the four scale, there is nothing in between 75% and 100% which means that in order to get ‘honors’ (over 80%), I have to assign a perfect grade.
  •  If I pick the four scale, there is nothing in between barely passing 50% and 75%. That’s a large leap.
  •   If I pick the five scale, it is awfully tempting to just pick 60% as it is a pretty average grade that lots of kids might fit.
  •  If I pick the five scale, there is nothing between 40% and 60%, so someone who I’m not comfortable with getting 80% will get the same 3/5 mark as someone I was not comfortable with giving a 40% failing grade.

I guess I could give half marks with these 4 and 5 scales. But where do I draw the line. Would it ever be appropriate to give quarter marks?

 And if I give half marks on the 5 point scale, I might as well use the 10 point scale. 7/10 is more aesthetically pleasing than 3.5/5.But if I start to go to a larger scale like the 10 or 100 point scale, can I really say with any certainty what is the difference between a 6/10 and 7/10 or a 67/100 or 68/100?

 And if you don’t like number or letter grades, there is no shortage of teachers who would rather use word descriptors such as: (read the scales from left to right)


 You’ll notice that even when teachers move away from numbers or letters, the kids or parents may not. Above, the first choice shows a two point scale – a pass or fail kind of scale. The second choice shows a three point scale and the last option a four point scale. Even though teachers might not be thinking percentages anymore, the kids and parents may do the conversions themselves. A PROFICIENT to them may mean 75%.

Symantics become the largest problem with written judgements like these. For example, some people would rather see the lowest option to say NOT YET inorder to imply optimism and hope, while others may still want more than EXCELLENT in order to really differentiate the students who are the very best.

 There is no doubt that there are plenty of people who would love to discuss which scale is better. Teachers could spend the rest of their careers attending professional development sessions where we discuss, argue, bicker and nit-pick over which reductionist scale is better. Some teachers may like numbers, some letters, while others prefer happy faces or words. There may be small, almost indistinguishable differences between these scales, but keep in mind they all have one common characteristic – they are all reductionist in nature. They all attempt to take something as messy and beautiful as learning and reduce it all to a single or double digit.

 Alfie Kohn speaks to the false sense of objectivity marks and how so marks and rubrics have misled so many for so long, and how grading can in fact be so degrading.

 There is a kind of educational malpractice going on when teachers profess to be able to reduce a child’s learning to a symbol.

 What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment.

There is absolutely nothing objective about grading, and in 1976, Paul Dressel wrote a brilliant summary of what a grade actually means:

 A mark or grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material.

 A more profound or practical statement on the subject is hard to imagine.

Grades and rubrics are a solution in search of a problem that will further destroy learning for its own sake. 

 It’s been five years since I used a rubric. I simply don’t need them, nor do my students.
Rather than spending time asking how can we grade better, we really need to be asking why are we grading. And then we need to stop talking about grading altogether and focus our real efforts on real learning.

It’s been five years since I used a rubric. I simply don’t need them, nor do my students.

If we can agree that reducing learning to a symbol is a kind of malpractice then we can start to discuss how we can replace grading with something far better.

I blog regularly about this topic @

  • uberVU - social comments
    Posted at 17:55h, 11 March

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by ShellTerrell: RT @prestwickhouse: The Folly of Rubrics and Grades via @jasonflom…

  • Prestwick House
    Posted at 18:13h, 11 March

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    Posted at 18:13h, 11 March

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    Posted at 18:18h, 11 March

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  • Jason Flom
    Posted at 19:19h, 11 March

    Join the conversation! RT @prestwickhouse: The Folly of Rubrics and Grades via @joe_bower | Ecology of Education

  • Shelly S Terrell
    Posted at 19:21h, 11 March

    Folly of Rubrics & Grades #education

  • pmacoun
    Posted at 19:35h, 11 March

    I can tell it's report card time. I agree with … RT @thenerdyteacher RT @ShellTerrell Folly of Rubrics & Grades

  • PrimEdTech
    Posted at 18:48h, 11 March

    I've also written a post on this topic but took a slightly different route. Have a look:

  • Samantha Morra
    Posted at 20:13h, 11 March

    RT @ShellTerrell: Folly of Rubrics & Grades #education

  • boundstaffpress
    Posted at 19:14h, 11 March

    I use rubrics for conferencing with students. I think they provide better information to the student on what I was expecting from them and from an assignment. We then as a pair can determine what we feel is an appropriate grade. I don't let myself be tied to a formula for establishing a grade. I too found that these formulas always had flaws.

  • Celine
    Posted at 19:24h, 11 March

    Very good point! I have been myself trying to put together rubrics for my classes. As you say, the most important is the feedback that you give to the student and not the grade. But our education is such that the student will only remember the grade!
    I'd like to hear more about how you do it without grades and how students/parents react to that!

  • Jennifer
    Posted at 19:42h, 11 March

    At first read through, I furrowed my brow at my computer and said something along the lines of “well, that's like talking about the folly of ice cream and Volkswagen.” Yes, they're connected but only if we chose. To me, rubrics serve to main purposes: 1. a way to communicate our expectations to students – for moments when we're not standing next to them 2. a means for students to assess their own work. In my opinion, the rubric you posted isn't a solid one. Any rubric that relies on cut and paste isn't quality – Given that no teacher says a variation of the same phrase to a student who is struggled as he does to a student who is excelling. Rather, we naturally give students specific feedback on what to do to get better. Knowing what it takes to go from “inadequate” to “below average” shouldn't have to be inferred. The same way “a few” mistakes don't make for lesser quality work that “some” mistakes.

    Granted, I'm completely ignoring the role of grades. But we all agree that grades aren't feedback – in our current system, we need to do both. So, isn't it possible to separate rubrics from grades and focus on developing quality rubrics AKA communicating our expectations as clearly as possible? If that's the case, then the folly lies in connecting rubrics to grades, rather than in rubrics themselves. If and when we connect rubrics to grades, there are other approaches we can take that are slightly more comfortable than the reductionist approach you shared above.

    I'm also troubled by your phrase “student-proof” rubrics. If I am to infer that you mean a rubric that works for all of your students, then why not develop the rubric with your students? Show them what quality looks like – use “real world” examples – from literature, from architecture, from NASA – and work with them to articulate what quality looks at varying degrees. The goal of a quality rubric is not to reduce or diminish in any way nor describe “perfect”, the top level should describe what students can reach for, performance that's better than what you would expect from a child at that point in their learning process and the bottom levels describe what you see in a new learner's attempt at a task, not all of the things they failed to do. If you are uncomfortable breaking down a learning task, than a holistic rubric may be a way to articulate your thinking for students.

    Eventually, I go back to one question over and over again when I read criticisms of rubrics: If you're not using rubrics to communicate your expectations around quality, what are you using?

    When the response is “I tell them.” I ask a second question: What are you using for students to refer to when you're not around?

  • jasonflom
    Posted at 19:56h, 11 March

    I'm fortunate to teach in a school that does not assign grades in elementary school. Our system at this stage is much more in keeping with what your describe on your blog, For the Love of Learning. Observation, comment, response, and suggestions for improvement — very matter of fact, personalized, and focused in large part on formative assessment. In fifth grade our report cards address specific skill sets (rather than subject areas) on a 1-5 scale, but it is based on development rather than numerical percentage.

    The reporting as such is much more personalized and specific, and includes a substantive narrative section. We place the most weight on “Processes of Learning”, those affective and behavioral domains that lend themselves to potentially wide swings of subjectivity. As a small, unified school it works really well for us. We regularly hear that the reporting process is exacting and precise for the individual child.

    The challenge, however, is scalability, of course. How would we replicate this system in a district with 10 elementary schools and 400 teachers (some of whom might not keep good records, or might not spend the time necessary to acutely reflect on each child)?

    The system today seems to be geared in large part on standardizing for the sake of comparison and for ensuring that even the worst teachers' report cards look the same as the best teachers'. It's definitely not the most refined and nuanced system, but it is scaled. And for many, that's good enough. Unfortunately.

    Thanks for sparking an important dialogue, Joe.

  • jasonflom
    Posted at 20:06h, 11 March

    First off, I like your off shoot analogy, ice cream & volkswagen. Funny, yet makes your case that we are talking about two very different things here: grades & feedback.

    Secondly, your suggestion to make rubrics with students is a good one — it ensures they know (and understand) the measure of competency and what the expectations for excellence are.

    The challenge therein, however, is that many teachers do not have the luxury of time to pursue that type/style of learning, which is a pity. Ownership through such a task would help students become better reflective thinkers as well as more critical of their own work. Too often though, the threat of the standardized tests looming ever on the horizon necessitate teachers attend to skills that may well affect their paycheck.

    In this way, we've inadvertently valued the quantitative test over the process of learning.

    What, system wide, can we do differently to affect change? Is it about administrators and supers taking a risk to encourage process oriented teaching? Is it teachers leaving the cookie cutter curriculums they are expected to attend to?

  • joebower
    Posted at 21:48h, 11 March

    Jennifer, I can agree that a rubric does not have to be married with grades. And I will concede that a non-graded rubric is superior to a graded-rubric.

    However, the standardized flavor of a column and row kind of rubric rubs me wrong.

    Can you share with me a rubric that you believe to be sound and good? I would like to see the kind of rubric that you believe has a place in learning.

  • Jennifer
    Posted at 23:43h, 11 March

    I can completely appreciate your discomfort with the rows and columns layout. It does taste of standardization and expecting students to conform to a particular image. However, I have to go back my question: If you're not using rubrics to communicate your expectations around quality, what are you using?

    My colleagues and I have been exploring the concept of quality rubrics for several years now and have begun to collect examples in a wiki here: We're still posting examples but here is a link to one that you might find interesting.… It's holistic, so there's only one row. The headings refer to the teacher's response while reading the student's writing. It came out of a need to help students understand what makes a quality reflection in response to an essential question asked at the beginning of a unit. I do have several other examples I can share as well.

  • joebower
    Posted at 03:52h, 12 March

    My expectations do not revolve around quality so much as around learning. The quality is a byproduct of a safe and caring learning environment where the kids see me as a caring ally rather than a judge in waiting.

    I speak with my children. I work with them. I have a ning where we upload pics, videos and blogs and I discuss with them the things they are learning about.

    I provide daily conversations with them. I provide daily interactions. Two way interactions.

    As for your question: “What are you using for students to refer to when you're not around?”

    This, I admit, is a very good question. Here is what I leave my students…

    I want you to think of the teachers you think the most of from you school days. I would be willing to bet the farm that you would be hard pressed to remember what any of those awesome possum teachers actually taught you content wise; rather, what you really remember them for is how they made you feel.

    And that's what I do.

    I teach my students plenty.

    But in the end.

    I provide them with an extrinsic-free learning environment where I can help guide, grow, nurture, coach and teach their instrinsic love for learning. So that in the end…

    …they remember how I made them feel while they were learning… grades and rubrics can only ever get in our way of achieving any of this.

  • John Spencer
    Posted at 13:30h, 12 March

    When you take the judgment out of the rubric (the quantified score), the columns can actually provide decent structure. Sometimes students like having a grid to see things through. I've used strength/weakness columns in rubrics and I've used traditional rubrics without quantified scores. I don't “make” students use the rubric – I ask if they want to use one as part of their self-reflection. Many choose to use them. It's almost a matter of personality.

  • Matt
    Posted at 17:37h, 12 March

    I resonate with all these thoughts completely. I'm currently experimenting with a 4 point scale, include +/- that translates to a 100 pt scale. Still not perfect, but better than I had before. I read your link about replacing with something better. I'm going to have to think thru this because our school policy does state that we need to have at least 10 grades per quarter. We have other “guidelines” per grade level that says we count every grade with equal weight. You've given me much to think about.

  • crudbasher
    Posted at 13:37h, 15 March

    Great observations Joe! I teacher in a university and use Rubrics. I will certainly reevaluate that. I also had not heard the quote from Paul Dressel. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Fernando Santamaría
    Posted at 22:38h, 15 March

    The Folly of Rubrics and Grades #mdm10

  • Joe Bower
    Posted at 00:47h, 20 March

    RT @lernys: The Folly of Rubrics and Grades #mdm10

  • Joe Bower
    Posted at 00:47h, 20 March

    RT @e_m_delacruz: The Folly of Rubrics and Grades

  • Alfonso Gonzalez
    Posted at 01:11h, 20 March

    RT @lernys: The Folly of Rubrics and Grades #mdm10

  • Brian Barry
    Posted at 01:45h, 20 March

    RT @e_m_delacruz: The Folly of Rubrics and Grades

  • Alan Stange
    Posted at 03:34h, 20 March

    I like Paul Dressel's quote on grades. They serve a function in society and before you discard them for their imperfections you need to be sure everyone is more or less on the same page for how we will structure assessment after the revolution. The French aristocratic regime certainly warranted replacement, what replaced their rule likely needed a sober second thought. Joe Bower is right to point out people's predilection for seeing any and all forms of assessment, including rubrics themselves, as some variation on grades. A-B-C-D-F, 5-4-3-2-1, Ex-M-B-NY, or whatever; people persist in reading that as a percentage. “Meeting” expectations is what we use in the Prairie South School Division. Colleagues want to also have M+ and M- on the report card.

    I think rubrics (hate the word actually) exist in a teacher's head as that teacher critiques and workshops student work. The goal of articulated rubrics is to invite students into the evaluation process. I loved high school comprehensive final exams in June. It was a moment I could indulge in connoisseurship: judgment informed by intuition. I was not required to explain my evaluation. I'll stand by those assessments too but they frustrated my students on the rare occasion when they had a chance to review their marked exams.

    One of my practices was to offer a flexible weighting on student work. My students might prefer to redistribute the values on an assignment to capitalize on a strength. There is a logic to this that is manifest in a connoisseur's evaluation and rarely in a rubric. Rubrics habitually weight criteria evenly or in an inflexible formula (We grade the same way). As a creative writing teacher I know the merits of a composition do not rest on a balanced formula of effect, setting, characterization and plot. Rubrics virtually collapse in an ineffectual heap when it comes to poetry. These are times when we must abandon our beloved little systems of charts and numbers and approach something on its own merits.

    Report cards come out in seven days and my nine and ten year olds are beginning to think about their grades. I love the freedom of elementary school. We have worked to benchmarks and reflected on work in the context of rubrics. I have never mentioned grades throughout the term. It never seemed to matter.

  • Joe Bower
    Posted at 04:09h, 21 March

    @21stprincipal Rubrics? We don't need no stinking rubrics!

  • Alfonso Gonzalez
    Posted at 06:27h, 21 March

    RT @joe_bower: @21stprincipal Rubrics? We don't need no stinking rubrics!

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  • markhallen
    Posted at 03:50h, 13 August

    Well, normal people would just know instinctively that anything called “holistic rubrics” is going to be really stupid. I mean, do you think that a Holistic Rubrics Cube would ever have become popular? It should also be pointed out that New York, which is heavily invested in this, is a state that has not been able to make a budget add up correctly in my lifetime. (more at

  • Joe Bower
    Posted at 13:17h, 31 August

    RT @Eco_of_Ed: Blast from the past: "The Folly of Rubrics & Grades" by @Joe_Bower | Ecology of Education #edchat #gtchat #lrnchat

  • Richard Lakin
    Posted at 21:10h, 01 September

    RT @Eco_of_Ed: Blast from the past: "The Folly of Rubrics & Grades" by @Joe_Bower | Ecology of Education #edchat #gtchat #lrnchat

  • Joe Bower
    Posted at 13:02h, 05 October

    Blast from the past: "The Folly of Rubrics and Grades" by @Joe_Bower #edchat #cpchat #edreform