In recent years, rubrics have become a popular trend for assessing student achievement; they have been the common grading tool at most choral and solo festivals for as long as any of us can remember. While rubrics can be useful, they also present several pitfalls thats can severely impact the long-term growth and motivation of students at all levels.
According to Wikipedia, a rubric is:
“a scoring guide used to evaluate the quality of students’ constructed responses.”
Rubrics set a basic standard for tangible levels of achievement in specified areas. As opposed to a regular test that focuses on specific information and gives a exact grade, a rubric assesses the overall level of achievement of a student.
Within a rubric, there is a basic standard in any category that will prevent the loss of any points. In most cases, a student tends to start with full credit, and loses points when deficiencies are apparent. Should a student meet whatever is deemed as full credit in any particular category, they will receive a full score. Should they do this in most or all categories, they will receive the top score on their overall rubric.
When a student reaches the top score in any category, it implies they have become proficient in that skill. This is quite a different mindset than a traditional test. If, for example, a teacher gives a music-reading test and a student labels every note and rhythm correctly, they receive a perfect score on that test; the perfect score on that specific test does not imply anything further. A perfect score on a notation test would be no different that a student earning a perfect score on a spelling test; just because they earned a perfect score on a specific spelling test doesn’t imply they would earn a perfect score on a different spelling test.
A rubric can serve a great purpose in teaching beginning and developing students that there are clear levels for any skill. It provides transparency in a teacher’s assessment and provides awareness for each student of where they are and how they can propel forward. In this way, a rubric is quite effective. But what happens when a student reaches the top level of achievement on the rubric? What does attaining the top of a rubric actually mean?
Rubrics are intended to set a basic standard, not to recognize or assess greatness. When an elite student gets trapped within a rubric, they tend to believe they have reached the pinnacle of success just by earning full credit.
When using the example of a solo or choral performance (as mentioned in my previous blog post) this “elite” score is nothing more than reaching a standardized level of success. A rubric does not differentiate between a student who meets the fundamental levels to avoid point deductions and a student who is destined for a career in performance. It doesn’t account for emotion and depth of performance, nor does it account for a voice that is far beyond all others. It also doesn’t account for a student who exceeds the top level in most rubric categories yet demonstrates a deficiency in a specific area. If graded effectively, the average performer who meets the fundamental level required for a “full-score” in every category will receive a higher total rubric score than the brilliant artist who has a career ahead of them and lacks proficiency in one specific skill.
The example above is one example of how a rubric can lose it’s usefulness. In this case, the rubric was useful in pointing out to the superstar performer what their weakness was, but didn’t point out their incredible strengths; in regard to the average student who received a perfect score, it didn’t make them aware that while the met all standard levels, they have not demonstrated the volume, tone, dynamics, artistry, and depth needed to be a stand-out performer.
If rubrics become the basis for teaching and learning, they can inform students that good enough is the goal. For example, a student who can sight-read the right notes, rhythms and dynamics at the top level of a performance test (or festival) may think they have mastered sight-reading; as they earn a perfect score for what they have demonstrated, they are unaware that a more refined and experienced singer may sing that same example with a more consistent tonal placement, better dynamic contrast, more beautiful shape, and a musicality that makes that same exercise sound like a well-rehearsed aria.
Rubrics are great for beginners to see tangible steps towards improvement, but it is limiting for students who aspires for pure excellence and the pursuit for eternal growth.
Once a student has become self-motivated, they can become driven by factors that run much larger, yet far deeper than any rubric. They are driven by musicality, depth of emotion, knowledge, and a hunger for growth in ways that are not captured by a rubric.
Rubrics fail when:
1. They are set up in a way to discourage achievement in students
If a rubric sets expectations for skills that appear so high that students constantly feel as if they are failing, they are likely to lose motivation to improve. By creating too much range for growth, we are setting them up to feel discouraged. Too many steps on a rubric is too daunting.
2. Teachers predominantly teach to them
This is no different than teaching to the test. A rubric misses the essence of music-making. Whether it’s sight-reading, solo performance evaluation, choir performance evaluation, or ear-training, a rubric sets clear levels of skill development, but also sets a cap for success.
3. Students learn predominantly to attain top score on them
When students focus mainly toward progressing on a rubric, they hone specific skills but lose sight of the larger picture. As students reach the top of any part of a rubric, they see it as being the best, not recognizing that the top level of any rubric is simply a standard that can easily be surpassed. The bigger picture allows multiple skills to fall into place on their own; the need to focus on specific details comes only when deficiencies become evident. When students primarily focus on a rubric they get tunnel-vision which prevents them from deeper and more fulfilling understanding.
4. They are perceived as anything more than a measure of fundamental growth
Rubrics measure growth and do not recognize excellence. Excellence happens by continuously striving for the deepest layers of understanding; it does not occur by focusing on specific details in isolation. A student who digs deeper and deeper into larger material will organically develop more detail as opposed to the student who focuses more and more on the details and loses sight of the art itself.
5. Teacher’s are unsuccessful at inspiring all students to see beyond the rubric
It is our fault if students cling to a rubric. A rubric can be a cover for exploring deeper. Mastering our instrument, our rehearsal discipline, or our musicianship, is something that has infinite layers of development. As students, teachers, musicians and human beings we have a lifetime to grow and every student should see there is more and more to uncover, even when repeating the same material. A high school choir who receives a perfect score at an evaluation on a piece does not sound like a professional choir, or even a fine college choir.