“Our ultimate goal as culturally responsive teachers is to help dependent learners learn how to learn. We want them to have the ability to size up any task, map out a strategy for completing it and then execute the plan. That’s what independent learners do.” -Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain p. 122

The roots of the word rubric date back to ancient monks who used red ink for emphasis of “direction in a liturgical book as to how a religious service should be conducted.” By this definition, there’s not a lot of leeway or room for interpretation. Which is the opposite of collaborative, inclusive formative assessment practice. 

While guidelines are important, sometimes these tools can become the constraint. In our aim to tackle time management, the practice of formative assessment has suffered. For example, big publishers have tried to systematize this process – creating digital “formative” assessment checklists for ease and uniformity. Likewise, teachers have spent countless hours creating elaborate rubrics, some broad in scope and some so narrow they focus only on the task and not the learning. The problem is these types of assessment practice only partially serve the purpose of informing and adjusting instruction to accelerate learning.  

Rubrics rarely have the same meaning for students that they do for educators. Rubrics can complicate the message when what we really want is for our learners to visualize what we mean or how to do something. So how do we get all learners to know what ‘proficiency’ looks like? And, more importantly, how can they create it themselves?

Consider writing. We know that students need to learn the process and the principles of argumentation writing in all content areas (i.e., structure, relevance, credibility, rebuttal, etc.). Instead of using a rubric to communicate these expectations, use exemplars such as anchor papers, work samples, and (anonymous) authentic student work that reflect varied levels of proficiency. When students see what a final product should look like and moreover are invited to analyze these exemplars, they are activating schema.

When well supported, this activity accelerates new learning, by putting new information in context and connecting known concepts and previous experiences. It also jumpstarts and motivates exploration of new material, increases intellectual involvement with academic language and content. This process is effective for all learners and essential for students learning a new language while advancing academic language.

Formative Assessment: A Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Approach

“All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is: to which culture is it currently oriented?” —Gloria Ladson-Billings

In a culturally and linguistically responsive learning environment, final products such as exemplars are the success criteria. Learners identify what they need to know. Not only should success criteria be shared, but also analyzed, discussed, evaluated, and created along with students. However, this question persists, “Isn’t this giving the answers away to students?” It is important to lean into questions like this and recognize the origin and characteristics behind this belief.

What really happens when you withhold success criteria?

Hiding and withholding success criteria reflects a supremist mindset – one that is pervasive in our educational system. Anyone can have this mindset and often we have subscribed to it without even realizing it. The supremist mindset shows up by:

  • Overemphasizing Perfection: Leaving little time or energy put into reflection, improving practice, or valuing mistakes
  • Power Hoarding: Seeing little (if any) value around sharing control, or feeling threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done
  • Obsession with Urgency: Takes away from being inclusive, dignity-based, and collaborative
  • Placing Little or No Value on Process: “If it can’t be measured, it has no value”
  • One-Sided Thinking: Believing there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they need to do it

These damaging beliefs perpetuate the dichotomy of those who hold power make decisions and those without power do not – yet they are completely familiar with the impact of those decisions on them. Essentially, when decision-making is clear to those with power and unclear to those without it, it corrupts the learning process.

Actions to consider:

Share what success looks like, discuss it, and co-create the steps to create it. Include process criteria in your planning; establish value statements which expresses the ways in which you want learners to work.Place high value in student agency and recognize students as active learners in the process, scaffold reflection and deeper learning about their own process.Write value statements, discuss what good leadership looks like and make sure people understand that a good leader develops alongside others.Collectively review your vision/mission statement and consider how culturally and linguistically responsive learning is emphasized.Make sure everyone knows and understands their level of responsibility; include people who are affected by decisions in the decision-making.

Concealing success criteria from learners is ineffective. Spend your time efficiently by building in ways to analyze what success looks like with students. Pivoting away from rubrics that encapsulate a one-size-fits-all mentality is the first step, and allowing students to be a part of the process is the second. Success criteria make learning visible to the teacher and the learner. Practicing these steps fosters students’ independence, allows them to support each other, and creates responsibility for their own learning. All of this helps students accurately and appropriately evaluate learning against the shared expectations, allowing them to adjust their learning in the most efficient way.