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December 1, 1996

Designing Rubrics for Authentic Assessment

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Imagine this: You've just opened a new restaurant and you need to hire several waiters. You visit other restaurants in your area and make a list of the characteristics of the waiters that impress you. When you try to use your checklist to help you hire your own waiters, however, you discover that most people have degrees of the characteristics you find desirable. At this point, you realize you need more than a checklist to help you decide whom to hire. You need a scale that allows you to measure each candidate's strengths, characteristic by characteristic. You need a rubric.
Charlotte Danielson, consultant and program administrator for Educational Testing Service, described this scenario to her workshop audience to illustrate the point that rubrics should have an established purpose. The restaurant owner creates a rubric to help her find waiters with the best combination of the characteristics she deems necessary. Teachers, Danielson said, create rubrics to measure degrees of student understanding when complex, performance-based assessments are used.
When assessments result in either physical or written products, Danielson explained, teachers enter into "the area of judgment" and need the explicit criteria of a rubric to help them rate the quality of students' finished products.
Students need rubrics to help them make distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable performance. "This is the start of setting standards," said Danielson. "And what happens is that, as students see examples of exemplary work, their own standards increase."
  • A four-point scale. "If we go to a six-point, or higher, scale, people have trouble distinguishing between a level II and a level III performance," Danielson explained.
  • Equal distances between levels. "There shouldn't be giant leaps between points" on the scale, she advised.
  • Student-defined criteria. When students help design the rubric, they "have investment in the assessment," Danielson noted.
Danielson conceded that creating rubrics, and the performance tasks they measure, is time-consuming work. But the results, she insisted, are well worth the effort. "I know that asking students to do something [complex] gives me better and more important information about what they know," she said, adding that short-answer tests show a lack of respect for students' abilities. What's more, Danielson warned, "students think that, in school, what gets focused on is what counts. When students get a steady diet of low-level tests, they come to believe that that's what learning is all about."

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