The Rise of Rubrics for Performance Based Assessment in K–12 Education

January 9, 2018 Jonathan E. Martin

Class Completing A Project Assessed by Rubrics

Editorial note: Don’t miss Jonathan Martin’s new eBook, Enhancing Student Learning and Grading with Rubrics.

“A-: Good Job.”  

Back in the ‘80s, I attended a highly regarded private school for my secondary education. For three years, the above message is all that I ever—ever—received from my English teachers on what must have been the dozens of papers I submitted.   At the time, I didn’t know to be disappointed by this, but in retrospect, I sometimes feel angry: How on earth was that kind of feedback expected to support my growth as a writer and reader? I’d be willing to bet a fine meal at a favorite restaurant that the experience described above is one shared widely by readers of this post.    

Certainly, there are many approaches that improve upon the practice described above, but few are as efficient, transparent, communicative, (and evidence-based for effectiveness) as the use of high-quality rubrics.

“Rubrics offers so much more information than a letter grade. Students understand so much better where their grades come from, and, by seeing it broken down into five or six categories, it really reinforces for students the importance of each component, and what they need to do to improve their performance.” — Dave Bannister, Middle School Science Teacher, Fessenden School

Rubrics are on the rise in K–12 education right now, particularly at schools pushing beyond traditional modes of teaching and learning by having students do more projects and authentic work. As educator Bob Lenz wrote in an excellent 2015 book called Transforming Education, “Over the last twenty years, the tool that has gained widespread acceptance for meeting the challenge of defining and determining “mastery” is the rubric, whose defining characteristic is its insistence on words, rather than abstract symbols, to describe the quality of the work.”

What are the advantages of rubrics?

  1. Rubrics greatly clarify for students (and parents) what the learning targets are for any given task, and thus help them direct their efforts to what is most important.
  2. Rubrics greatly clarify for teachers what the learning targets are for any given task; often rubrics-using teachers, after crafting the assignment and then designing the rubric, recognize the need to go back and further tailor the task to better align it with the teacher’s desired outcomes—this is a very valuable practice.  
  3. Rubrics allow students to self-monitor the quality of their effort, and self-assess their progress, as they work to complete a task, whether individually or in groups, and this kind of meta-cognition is among the most important mindsets we can instill in students.
  4. Rubrics clarify for students the content and the quality of the work expected by the teacher.  
  5. Rubrics make grading easier and more efficient for most teachers, at least after a short transition period.
  6. Rubrics are vastly more informative, in most cases, to students than letter or number grades, even when those are accompanied by short comments, and thereby, promote greater student learning and growth.
  7. Rubrics make it easier to assess hard-to-assess tasks and projects.   
  8. Rubrics are demonstrably more accurate than conventional letter/numerical grading. (Note: these assertions are more fully explained and supported in the e-book).

As many readers may have noticed (and some may have overlooked), Blackbaud Learning Management System™ (formerly onCampus®) now provides users the opportunity to design, share, and employ rubrics for student grading. The system is very intuitive, and many experienced and expert rubric users will be able to jump into the skillful deployment of the tool immediately.

For others, it might be valuable as they begin their use of Blackbaud’s rubrics tool to step back for a moment and review the advantages of quality rubric assessments and best practices in their design and deployment. That is the purpose, and we hope, the value, of the eBook I’ve authored: Enhancing Student Learning and Grading with Rubrics.    

In its pages you’ll find the following discussions:

  • What a Rubric Isn’t and What a Rubric Is
  • Designing Rubrics: Intended Learning Outcomes/Skills and Proficiency Levels
  • Resources for High-Quality Rubrics
  • Using Rubrics Formatively
  • Using Rubrics for Grading  
  • The Manager’s Role in Using Rubrics in Blackbaud K-12
  • Further Reading for More Information

Few things are more important to student learning, and few things do more to make grading easily comprehended and respected than successful employment of excellent rubrics. I encourage you to take the steps at your school to support the educational team in discovering the rubrics feature in Blackbaud’s LMS and in educating everyone in best practices; we hope the new e-book will assist you in this effort.


About the Author

Jonathan E. Martin

Jonathan E. Martin has 15 years experience as a Head of School, and eight years as a teacher, at three independent schools in California and Arizona. He holds a BA from Harvard University and an MA in School Administration from the University of San Francisco; in 2008 he was a Visiting Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. An expert on 21st century learning and assessment, he has presented to school-leaders, teachers, and trustees at more than eighty conferences and schools since 2010. He writes widely and consults to schools nationally on innovative instruction, 21st century educational program design, educational leadership, and next-generation assessment. Jonathan is also a Blackbaud K-12 expert and you can find him online at and on Twitter @JonathanEMartin.

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