Grading on the Jagged Curve

When you're in doubt about grading, try a rubric, suggests Laura Sicola. See Dorothy Zemach's From A to Z column, "Making (Up) the Grade," Essential Teacher, March 2005 (pp. 18-19).

Few teachers I've met have ever claimed to love standardized tests--that is, until it's time to give grades. Then, while trying to figure out how on earth to fairly and authentically assess students' progress on final essays, presentations, and a semester's worth of memories of informal observations, we teachers wonder hazily who it was that convinced us true-false tests were outdated.

The Trouble with Assessment

I have taught bilingual elementary school, high school EFL abroad, and university-level ESL, and I'm still caught in an internal tug-of-war: part of me wants to create the most valuable lessons and assessments possible, and part doesn't want to spend twice as long evaluating a lesson as teaching it.

Some subjects, such as grammar or TOEFL preparation, simply lend themselves more easily than others to clear-cut evaluation. Unfortunately, more often than not, prescribed curricula still restrict assessments to paper-based knowledge.

Oral communication classes can be the toughest. How can you assess students' intonation when they're focusing so hard on vocabulary, verb endings, or memorized lines that the final product sounds anything but natural or meaningful? Where does application enter the picture in a way that can be graded in ten minutes or less?

Writing projects tend to be very time-consuming to grade, but ironically provide some relief because the requirements are generally clear from the start, such as provide a clear thesis statement, follow rhyme or meter, or simply apply appropriate punctuation. These somewhat binary, present-or-absent features can form the basis of a rubric that can be a huge sanity saver regardless of the course focus.

Rubrics Always Hit Their Mark

As a result, over the years, I've developed a rule of thumb: For any class, when in doubt about grading, use a rubric. Whether it has three items or thirteen, a rubric delineates the purpose of the assessment tool. Separating assessment points into content (e.g., argument was persuasive or used adjectives that fit all five senses) and structure (e.g., grammar, punctuation) or other categories can help students identify their strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, it helps me avoid letting one issue (e.g., excessive run-on sentences) jaundice my view of the rest of the project.

Creating rubrics can be hard at first, but giving students a list of your expectations serves multiple purposes and saves time in the long run.

Working the Rubric

  • I give students the rubric when I first assign a project. I find that it raises their awareness of the issues mentioned and helps prevent them from making some errors in the first place. It also reduces the likelihood of complaints of "but I didn't know you wanted that!"
  • The rubric helps me limit the focus of my comments. If tense shift or tag-question intonation is not a focus of the unit but students have particular difficulty with it, I can simply write a holistic comment at the end, asking them to see me privately and putting them on alert that it will be the topic of a future lesson.
  • Most importantly, the rubric gives credibility to the final grade I assign and makes the students feel that I paid attention to the details of their work.

I have used rubrics with eight-year-olds as well as with advanced-level adult professionals. Consistently, I have found rubrics to be a tool that I can modify to fit the needs of the course, balancing objective categories with my subjective interpretation.

When in doubt, try a rubric.

Laura Sicola ( is a doctoral candidate in educational linguistics and teaches ESL at an urban university in the United States.