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Using Rubrics to Assess Students with Disabilities’ Work

In the New York City school system as well as many others nationwide, we primarily use rubrics as opposed to substantive letter or number grades to assess student work in elementary school.  While I do often give objective assessments to my students that I grade using a percentage, I convert that percentage to a rubric ‘performance level’ for both my grade book and to return work to my students.  This system has some benefits and disadvantages.  One advantage is that it is far easier for students to grasp benchmark objectives to perform at each level of mastery using a well-written rubric.  The categories are broader, which enables more students to succeed at higher levels, but can also result in ‘watering down’ grades and skills required to perform at each level, which can be construed as a disadvantage.  Rubrics also have specific implications for assessing students with disabilities. Today, I want to explore some of these as well as walk through the steps to constructing a rubric for use with special education students.

Woman herstory A definite area of contention is whether teachers should use the SAME rubrics for special education students as their general education counterparts.  I personally feel like the answer to this question is always a ‘yes!’ since students have such varied strengths and weaknesses and since we as teachers always try to hold the highest possible expectations of our students.  I do think it is important to be aware of the effects that grades and assessments have on students with disabilities.  If you have a student who is performing far below his or her classmates and who consistently scores on the lowest level of a performance rubric, it may be necessary to use a different tool to assess that student.  However, rubrics can also be a good guideline for special education students to know what they NEED to do in order to achieve at a certain level, and if the expectation for the assignment or assessment is the same, they should use the same rubric so the student has more guidance regarding the assignment.

Some people might argue that teacher-created rubrics are a poor assessment tool for IEP assessments as they are not universal and can vary depending on who interprets them.  I actually think rubrics are one of the BEST ways to determine if a student is meeting IEP goals since they can be designed to meet the particular goals and short-term objectives of each student.  Another benefit to using rubrics is that they are easily interpreted by a variety of school staff members as well as parents, and thus enable them to be more included in the IEP process. 

Biography poem rubricAnother question to ask when deciding to use a rubric for students with disabilities is if the requirements  of the task are fully described on the rubric itself.  I tend to steer clear of very general rubrics for students with disabilities because they are vague and can seem overwhelming… instead of using a rubric that includes, for example, “Uses excellent writing mechanics,” I might choose to create a rubric that includes three specific mechanical tasks like “Capitalizes all proper nouns, uses punctuation marks at the end of each sentence, and uses commas to separate items in a series.”  This helps students understand exactly what is expected of them and also helps us as teachers know whether a student has met the requirements of the task or to what degree.  Additionally, even students who are generally not high-performing have a chance to succeed when they can use a rubric as a ‘checklist’ to ensure that they have included these elements of their assignments before handing them in.

Greektome I also think it is important to teach students explicitly how to use rubrics in your classroom.  Comments on student work like “You received a 3 because you included X, Y, and Z elements.  To get a 4 next time, try to Q or R” are very specific and more instructive to a student than “Nice job!  I liked your good examples!”  Rubrics actually save the teacher time when assessing writing especially because the comments are essentially pulled from students’ strengths and weaknesses on the rubrics themselves.  I have my students assess each others’ work and their own while articulating why they feel each score is justified, which also exercises their critical thinking skills to defend their reasoning.  My students with disabilities especially benefit from hearing specifically what they can work on next rather than feeling overwhelmed with a “bad grade.”  All students are able to start at a particular place on a rubric and move up, and even high-achieving students have room for improvement on a rubric, which levels the playing field somewhat in an emotional sense for lower-achieving students. 

I create my own rubrics for most of my students’ longer-term or more-weighty assignments.  We also use a general performance rubric for daily grades that converts percentages to performance levels, and I use rubrics to assess everything from behavior to writing assignments to in-class participation or group work. When creating rubrics, I keep the following in mind:

  • What were my specific expectations on this assignment?
  • How can I break this task down to make it clear to students how they will be assessed?
  • What aspects of the assignment am I NOT assessing?  I should leave those off of the rubric altogether since they will not go into the determination of a final score.
  • Should I divide the content of student writing versus mechanics to determine a score?  This depends on what specifically I am assessing.
  • How can I provide for differentiated work on the rubric?
  • What levels of mastery represent each performance level on the rubric?
  • How can I make this rubric fun, interesting, and accessible to my students? (I often name the performance categories using puns or plays on words to help them appeal to the students, which has evoked many the groan from my class and my co-workers. :-))
  • How will I introduce this rubric to my students?  Usually, before embarking on a longer-term assignment, I create the rubric and go over it in class with my students to make sure they understand how they will be assessed.  This also alleviates some of the inevitable arguments over points, grades, and achievement from students and parents since the expectations were clearly set in advance.

I usually use rubrics to assess student work because I think that they encourage and allow students at all levels to be successful and that they promote higher achievement in students with disabilities by giving them small, manageable, and specific tasks to complete without overwhelming them with a sense of impending failure.  I may modify a rubric to include extra criteria or remove specific items for my students with disabilities, but for the most part I find that my inclusion class benefits from allowing all students to be assessed on the same playing field.  The case for rubrics is sound and strong throughout general fields of educational philosophy and in my experience, there is good reason for it! 

For more information on rubrics and their use, check out some of these articles:

Make Room for Rubrics

Making the Most of Rubrics

Record Keeping and Reporting

The Workshop Model: Assessment Strategies that Work (Angela's take on student assessment!)

To share your tips, trials, and triumphs for working with rubrics, please post comments and questions directly on my blog using Mozilla Firefox.  Alternatively, feel free to email me at [email protected] and with your permission, I will post it and reply!

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Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Strategies for Special Education & Inclusion Classrooms are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.