This is the latest in a series of blogs by partners of the Fluency work.
By Katie O'Brien
Have you ever graded an assignment using a rubric, and when you calculated a student’s score, a just “meh” assignment earned a higher grade than you felt it deserved? Then, a few students later, you assessed another project which blew you away, but it didn’t earn an A on your rubric? I hate when that happens!
In preparation for next year, I recently read Fearless Writing by Tom Romano. For those not familiar with Romano’s work, see my note at the end of this post. In Fearless Writing, Romano delves deeper into how his teaching and assessment of multigenre papers have changed over the years. In "Section V: Evaluation and Learning," Romano discusses his struggles with rubric grading and offers advice on how to craft a rubric which honors the teacher’s gut sense as well as a more detailed evaluation of Common Core standards.
I teach 9th grade English in Ohio, and up until the 2019-2020 school year, my class was a tested subject. Students were required to write an expository and argument essay on The Test. A few years ago, I began teaching and assessing student papers using the state’s ELA writing rubrics as a way of holding myself accountable to teaching the required writing standards while helping students understand how they will be assessed on The Test.
On the one hand, assessing writing using the state’s rubric is much faster and less intimidating than the way I used to assess—spending a half hour or more writing comments in the margins of each paper. With a rubric, I can expediently highlight bullet points which most accurately describe a student’s writing and then circle the box with the most highlighting in each category. It’s not as targeted, but the time it saves allows me to assess drafts, provide one-on-one revision conferences, and then reassess the final paper.
The problem, however, lies in the ten-point format of Ohio’s writing rubrics. Students receive 0-4 points for Purpose, Focus and Organization and 0-4 more points for Evidence and Elaboration. The final two points come from Conventions of Standard English. On first drafts, I record the 10-point score and follow up with conferences so students know what to revise.
For the final draft, I multiply the 10-point rubric score to get a larger number such as multiplying by 10 to get a 100-point grade. Few students receive a 100/100, and when they do, the papers aren’t actually perfect. However, students who achieve most of the characteristics of the higher category end up with a perfect score that suggests the paper was error free when it wasn’t.
As I read Romano’s evaluation chapters, I couldn’t help thinking about how the state writing rubrics inherently highlights deficiency over mastery. My district uses a 10-point grading scale, so it’s impossible to earn an A on the state writing rubric when I enter it in my gradebook. Students either earn a rare A+ or an A-. The only other possibilities are B-, C-, D-, or F. Psychologically, the minus on the end of a grade means you almost got the lower grade. That B- is practically a C. The minus gives the negative impression to students and parents that the student’s course average is falling even if it isn’t.
Sometimes I “cheat” the rubric by adding 0.5 when a student seems to be between two categories. Moving forward, I plan to revise the point ranges on rubrics so most students will earn solid A, B, C, and D grades, and if there are so many points the rubric needs to go into plus/minus territory, point ratios could be created to result in plus- scores over minus-scores. It’s time to view the gradebook as half full rather than half empty.
Although more motivating emotionally, rubrics which result in straight A, B, C, D grades still do not solve the problem of assessing technically correct papers which don’t engage the reader. Romano’s solution to my quandary is “to arrive at a holistic grade” (153) as well as to grade “specific parts of the paper” (154). Half of his rubric points come from a holistic, “gut sense” score. The other half of the points come from a series of 10-point required elements broken into score ranges which align with letter grades (plus to minus). Those score ranges give the teacher a lot more wiggle room during assessment and prevent a gradebook full of minus-grades. Consider the difference:
Ohio ELA Writing Rubric for Conventions of Standard English
2 - Demonstrates an adequate command of basic conventions
1 - Demonstrates a partial command of basic conventions
0 - Demonstrates a lack of command of conventions
Romano’s Rubric (Copyediting) from Fearless Writing, p. 156
10 - Perfect. Rules broken are purposeful
9.7 - Contains few errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling
8.4-9.2 - Contains more than a few errors but meaning not seriously affected
7.2-8.3 - Contains enough errors to the point of distraction. Writer, perhaps, has not proofread well or does not have knowledge of grammar, usage, and spelling
0-6.5 - Frequent, repetitive errors, a copyediting disaster
I love Romano’s solution. When you teach and assess using a standards-based curriculum, students can be misled to believe “good” writing is “correct” writing. An introduction which contains an attention getter, thesis, and preview of main ideas
without any punctuation or spelling errors is A+, right? But what if that introduction is confusing, boring, or repetitive? Romano’s rubric philosophy allows us assess the standards but also rewards risk taking and inventiveness where writing is elevated beyond mere correctness to craft.
More on Tom Romano:
Tom Romano is most known for multigenre papers as an alternative to formulaic, five-paragraph essays. In a nutshell, a multigenre paper is a creative paper composed of multiple genres on a common theme. Instead of a five-page expository paper about a novel, a student writing multigenre might instead create a diary entry from the protagonist’s perspective, a two-voice poem, a dream sequence, a word cloud of emotions, and a Dear Abby letter asking for advice about the novel’s conflict. Romano describes multigenre papers this way in his first book on multigenre, Blending Genre, Altering Style:
A multigenre paper arises from research, experience, and imagination. It is not an uninterrupted, expository monolog nor a seamless narrative nor a collection of poems. A multigenre paper is composed of many genres and subgenres, each piece self-contained, making a point of its own, yet connected by theme or topic and sometimes by language, images and content. In addition to many genres, a multigenre paper may also contain many voices, not just the author's. The trick is to make such a paper hang together. (x-xi)
Multigenre papers are challenging and engaging to write, and when well executed, a delight to read. You can learn more about multigenre by visiting Romano’s webpage or reading his most useful book on the subject, Blending Genre, Altering Style. Another excellent introduction to teaching multigenre writing is A Teacher’s Guide to the Multigenre Research Project by Melinda Putz.
Katie O’Brien earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at Kent State University. Prior to that, Katie earned BS and MEd degrees in Education from Miami University and began her early teaching career at River High School in Hannibal, OH. She has worked as a teacher and tutor at numerous colleges. Since 2015, she has taught 9 th grade English and College Credit Plus courses at Union Local High in Belmont, OH. Katie currently is a member of Cohort 4 of The Data and Technology Fluency Project with West Liberty University and the CREATE Lab (situated in Carnegie Mellon University). Her special interests include writing, playing piano, guitar, and violin, tidying up like Marie Kondo, and helping students bridge the divides between middle and high school and high school and college.