Skip to content

When Rubrics Reign is it Time for a Coup?

By Mary Buckelew

41G46TubLhL._SS500_“Rubrics make powerful promises. They promise to save time. They promise to boil a messy process down to four to six rows of nice neat, organized little boxes. Who can resist their wiles? They seduce us with their appearance of simplicity and objectivity and then secure their place in our repertoire of assessment techniques with their claim to help us to clarify our goals and guide students through the difficult and complex task of writing” (2). Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (2007), by Maja Wilson

How many points is this assignment worth? How many lines do I need to write? How many pages? Where’s the rubric? Why did I get a 3 in organization? Why didn’t I get full credit? How do I get an A?

Students enter my college freshman writing classes with the above litany of questions, sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken, but ever present. These questions are as natural as breathing and begin early in students’ K-12 school careers.

Because I, too, have lived and continue to live within school systems, I became inured to what was happening in my writing classes. I didn’t move beyond pondering to full out questioning students’ grade-based questions until my life as a writer and educator evolved; i.e., I had been teaching for many years before my frustration at the thought of spending a 16 week semester reading, discussing, and conferring with students about their writing through the lenses of rubrics, grades, points, and tests moved from frustration to horror.

What should have seemed obvious to me, did not become obvious for years; rubrics, grading, and points do not grow writers.  I had committed Writicide* for a long time– whether teaching my high school classes or college classes, I was aiding and abetting a dictator who navigated ELA classes under the guise of the RUBRIC with its accompanying enforcers: points, grades, multiple choice tests, state tests, and more.  A daunting and well entrenched group that managed to obfuscate the student writers in front of me. I used rubrics to autopsy student writing. Rather than growing writers, I was killing the writing before the writer could experience growth — A slow death by rubric!  *See Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide in Reference section.

So for the past few years, I’ve done more than ponder how to replace grade-based questions with questions and discussion about writing; after all, I teach writing-emphasis courses, not grade- emphasis or rubric-emphasis courses.

How could I convince students to see beyond the matrix of grades and points, so they could experience the power of their own voices, their own agency, and contribute to the conversations around them—especially when it had taken me years to realize that enacting writing process  and workshop in my classroom did not necessarily mean that students were embracing the process and the writing with interest, enthusiasm, and a sense of agency. The grade-based questions still loomed large, overtly spoken or like a figurative silent sentinel ensuring that we didn’t forget the rubric, the grade.

Early on, my journey started with Nancie Atwell, Donald Murray, and Donald Graves who opened my eyes to teaching writing as a process not product. Later, I found Vicki Spandel’s work with the Six Traits+1 to be one possible pathway to building a community language to talk about writing and what writers do. Spandel uses guidelines rather than rubric to refer to the traits. A positive shift. I thought.

While Atwell, Graves, Murray and Spandel were key in my growth as a teacher of writing, I was also seeking those who questioned the impact of grading and systems on writers’ growth. Alfie Kohn’s voice often resonates, but it was also a relief to find that there is a coup of sorts going on with other current teachers of writing.  Maja Wilson, Paul Thomas and many others question and write about the use and results of using and or misusing rubrics and grades in the writing classroom.  I also found Carol Dweck’s research on the growth and fixed mindset valuable when trying to move beyond the roadblock to growth that rubrics and grades set-up.

Most of my college freshman stand at a threshold in their lives and are ready to question a grade/point system gone awry. Murray’s essay “Teaching Writing as a Process not Product” and Dweck’s article “The Secret to Raising Smart Children” give students a language to analyze their past writing experiences,  the systems from which they have come, and the teachers who have contributed to their views of themselves as writers. Their analyses are illuminating and both heartening and disheartening.

Many come to their freshman year of college having had writing experiences with teachers who write, teach writing, and talk about writing with them.  I know authentic writing teachers are out there. I see them at the PA Writing and Literature Project’s (PAWLP) Continuity Saturdays throughout the school year. However, most students do not come with authentic writing experiences and see themselves as a letter grade. “I’m a B writer. I don’t really enjoy writing. Never have. I’ve always been a C or B writer.”  Or “I’m an A writer.” Unspoken: “I’m finished learning.”

Even if standing on the threshold of new experiences opens the door to growing writers in my freshman writing classes, the students have landed in yet another matrix where the endgame is about the grade.  For now, I must continue to experiment with how to assign grades and grow writers without a single student leaving my classroom thinking they are an A, B, C, D or F Writer. I’ve never met an A, B, C, D, F writer?   Have you?

How do you grow writers in a grade-based system? When and how do you talk to students about their writing?  What are your thoughts about writing and the teaching of writing?


Anson, C. et al. 2012 “Big Rubrics and Weird Genres: The Futility of Using Generic Assessment Tools Across Diverse Instructional Contexts.”  The Journal of Writing Assessment 5 (1) 4 June.

Callahan, R. 1962 Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces that have Shaped the Administration of Public Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dorfman L. & Dougherty. D. 2017 A Closer Look: Learning More about Our Writers with ‘Formative assessment, K-6. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Dweck, C. 2015 “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.” Scientific American Jan. 1 2015

Elbow, P. 1973 Writing Without Teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gallagher, K. 2009 Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and what you can do about it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Hagopian, J. ed. 2014 More than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Chicago, IL; Haymarket Books.

Murray, D. 1982 “Teaching the Other Self: The Writer’s First Reader” College Composition and Communication 21: 21-6

Thomas, P. 2013 De-testing and De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization. New York, New York: Lang Publishing

Ray, K. 2010. In Pictures and in Words. New Hampshire: Heinemann

Wilson, M. 2018 Reimagining Writing Assessment: From Scales to Stories. New Hampshire: Heinemann

Wilson, M. 2007 Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. New Hampshire: Heinemann


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Lex McClellan #

    Thanks for this article! Very helpful when thinking about what rubrics do to our students—specifically how rubrics can devalue what our students have to say. I liked the play on Gallagher’s title. I am currently writing a research piece on what can be done to grade more holistically and will be sure to cite your piece.


    November 2, 2019

We'd love to hear what you think! Please comment below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: