Thinking about One Point Rubrics, Standards, and Dimensions

Yesterday (July 30), the UWP's first-year writing teachers got together and discussed the curriculum and changes to our new stretch program (TWRT 120 and 121). Autumn quarter will be the first quarter of the new stretch and stretch plus options for first-year students, which you can learn more about on our Web site. Because the courses are new, we got together to discuss them. We had an engaging set of discussions that ranged a number of topics, from our priorities around our program goals to activities we intend to scaffold our classes around.

Jennifer Gonzalez' Web site, Cult of
But our most interesting discussions, for me, were around grading. The new TWRT 120 course is a pass/fail course that uses a grading contract to determine course grades (CR or NC). I won't discuss contracts here, but save that for another day. During our conversation, one of our teachers, Caitlin Carle, offered us a nice blog post she found on what the post author, Jennifer Gonzalez, calls a "single point rubric." The article is on Brilliant or Insane: Education on the Edge, and Gonzalez is an education blogger and former teacher who runs her own web site and podcast for teachers (mostly secondary teachers), called Cult of Pedagogy

This rubric practice is one I've used since at least 2003-04, and published an article on the practice in Assessing Writing in 2005 ("Community-Based Assessment Practice"), which I've gotten many positive comments on over the years. The practice in my article shows how to build such a rubric with students in a cycle of assessment and reflection that is meant to involve students in every aspect of the assessment of their writing in the college classroom. I've changed my practice a bit since the article, but here I'd like to focus on the technology of rubrics, more specifically, what Gonzalez calls a single point rubric, and how it works with particular kinds of assessment ecologies (see my new book, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies, to learn about assessment ecologies). I'd like to close on a change or shift in how my version of the single point rubric works in the ecology. 

Typical Rubrics
Most teachers and students think of rubrics for writing assignments as a list or table of expectations that have a score, ranking, or judgment attached to each dimension. So there might be five dimensions that are often represented by each row in a table, while each column offers a description of writing along each dimension that fits each different judgment or ranking possible. In this way, a teacher might use the rubric to provide individual scores on separate dimensions of the writing submitted, or add scores together to create an overall score or ranking. Below is a typical rubric (from Pittsburgh State University) in table form that offers four judgments, which could easily be ratings or scores (1-4). Each row describes a dimension of the writing that the reader (teacher) will make a judgment on. Such a rubric can be given to students to help explain grades on writing in a general way.

Note that this rubric, if used to explain grades, only explains grades, not how a student is doing (or has done) in a piece of writing. And if offers grade explanations in generalized terms, that do not connect them (or the teacher's reading) to evidence in the actual writing. The rubric expects the writer to understand those connections, or demands that the teacher include additional information and feedback. As the sole use of feedback, it simply shows the judgment, but can do very little in justifying or arguing that judgment to a student (how did the teacher come to it?). Where in the essay is one's support for claims "inadequate"? What is the nature of inadequacy in this paper's use of evidence? What is inadequate evidence exactly? Where is the line between "adequate" and "entirely appropriate"? The rubric cannot answer these important learning questions that students need to know.If you're using  a rubric like the above, and then adding further feedback so students can improve their writing, then you may be doing more than you need to, if your goal is to help students write better (as well as working against your own purposes by assigning a grade/judgment with feedback). Studies have shown how grades negatively affect students' abilities to use feedback on their writing, and harm their motivations. Alfie Kohn has shown these connections quite persuasively, and has many of his articles available on his web site, but for my money, his best argument comes in Punished by Rewards. If your goal is just to measure, then providing feedback with a rubric also may be doing too much. No need for the feedback.

Single Point Rubric
One solution, perhaps, is the single point rubric. Gonzalez describes the single point rubric as follows: 
Instead of detailing all the different ways an assignment deviates from the target, the single-point rubric simply describes the target, using a single column of traits. It’s what you’d find at level 3 on a 4-point scale, the “proficient” column, except now it’s all by itself. On either side of that column, there’s space for the teacher to write feedback about the specific things this student did that either fell short of the target (the left side) or surpassed it (the right).
So a single point rubric simply defines or describes the second column from the left in the above Pittsburgh State rubric. This gets rid of the other distinctions (judgments), and focuses the teacher's and the student's attention on the teacher's feedback in each dimension. It can also be easier for students to figure out and use because it is simpler. Her example below makes it clear how a teacher might use such a rubric with students. 

Gonzalez' Single Point Rubric

Only having to make a single, binary judgment on writing saves time because a teacher doesn't have to pine over too fine distinctions that become more dubious or arbitrary as the distinctions multiply. This problem is clearest when one must explain the difference between an essay that "earns" an 88 as opposed to an 87 or an 89, or even a 90. The single point rubric gets rid of most those judgments, which are summative, and focuses on formative judgments, the comments and feedback. In some significant ways, this rubric offers teachers who still use grades to simplify the assessment process and help students focus on feedback. And I think most, if not all, writing teachers would agree: we want our students to focus on our feedback, not grades. 

From Standards to Dimensions
A single point rubric is much easier to create with your students because the purpose of any rubric generating activity is: what does proficient mean for us? This is like asking students to define or talk about what makes "good writing," which is always a good discussion to have with them. But of course, being able to identify and articulate what good writing is and practicing such good writing are two different things. In part, they are different because it's not the writer who primarily determines what is good writing, it is the reader, which in most classrooms is the teacher. So even with a good use of a single point rubric, the assessment ecology of the classroom will still bend toward the teacher as standard maker and standard bearer. Students continue to play the "how do I please the teacher" game, or the "give her what she wants" game. To avoid this, I have used writing dimensions, instead of standards in my single point rubrics. So they are rubrics that do not identify "meets expectations" as much as they are ones that identify the dimensions of writing we are exploring and trying to understand. And the only way to do that understanding is to get observations (feedback) from multiple readers, colleagues and the teacher. 

So I shift the rubric from standards to dimensions. Rubric building activities I engage in with students ask this question: What dimensions of writing do we want to work on or improve? Notice, I'm changing the focus of the above rubrics (both) from describing what is proficient or meeting expectations to a dimension of writing that we can argue and disagree about. That we should and inevitably will disagree about, if we are human. Let's take that "Development" row in the Pittsburgh State rubric above. Gonzalez' single point rubric would use the "meets expectations" column as the defining point in one row of her rubric, that would then help her as the teacher write about her "concerns" and "evidence of exceeding standards" for that dimension. Again, notice that her rubric focuses on pleasing the teacher, and only acknowledges her judgments. 

In my single point rubric, the point identified is a dimension of writing that is not a standard but a dimension, a question about the writing, in a sense. So here's how their standard and my dimension might look next to each other: 

  • Their Standard: Evidence and reasoning are adequate to support claims. The assignment is complete. 
  • My Dimension: How does evidence and reasoning support claims adequately? How complete is the draft?

Notice that the dimension encourages readers (judges) to explain their observations and demands that multiple readers read and provide observations. It also does not assume that there is a standard by which we can judge or rank any dimension of writing. Sally's essay and Jose's are simple different instances of discourse, and so should be responded to on their own terms. That's what we focus on.  

What's the advantage to mine over other rubrics? I think, the biggest is that it doesn't penalize subaltern discourses, multilingual students, students of color, or working class students who come to our classrooms with discourses that do not match well with the academic ones that tend to be a part of the standards on all rubrics (except mine). In fact, it uses them to create discussion, disagreement, and productive dissonance in the reading of student writing. So does this mean that my dimension-based rubric is not teaching some standardized version of English? No, we cannot avoid that to some degree, but we can be more critical and conscious of that standardizing in our judgments and rubrics as only one perspective, one reading, which I believe a dimension-based single point rubric does. Ultimately, focusing on dimensions in our rubrics and not standards moves our classroom assessment ecologies toward antiracist ends. 


  1. This makes sense on so many levels! Most students don't seem to understand rubrics anyway, they are incredibly arbitrary since they explain little to nothing about what a student did "right" or "wrong"--and they don't really help with any possible revisions. Your version would require teachers to explain their assessment, so a student could actually learn something from them--allowing them be able to revise their work based on some actual standard rather than a nebulous "fails to prove their point" without an explanation of HOW they failed! This is a rubric that would be helpful to anyone!

  2. Thanks, Margaret. It's worked for me. But you are right that our feedback should be explained to students. They may not automatically know how to read our feedback and use it. It's always a good practice.


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