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What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics?

It’s a relatively easy task to criticize any measure of writing assessment. This is my chore in What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics. However, it’s a much more challenging task to advocate in favor of a specific writing measurement. That is my chore in a related article: “Analytical Rubrics.”

Let’s start with a brief definition: A holistic rubric is a criterion-referenced assessment that is often used to evaluate writing. The writing is assessed according to a set of criteria. Unlike analytic rubrics, the criteria in holistic rubrics are grouped and not separated into discreet writing tasks. Thus, multiple components are grouped by a defined category and are considered as a whole.

Holistic rubrics have two basic features: 1. the writing category 2. the numeric levels of performance.

Holistic rubrics are used to assess writing by the SAT®, ACT®, state standards tests, by many college admissions counselors, and by most teachers. If everyone is using them, they must not be that bad.

It’s not that… holistic rubrics are too subjective. That’s the nature of the essay beast. Teachers should trust their judgment. Expertise and experience in both the content and craft of good writing serve well to fairly and accurately evaluate student writing.

It’s not that… holistic rubrics lead teachers to unfairly evaluate student writing. I have personally served as a state grader of student essays and can assure doubters that using read-arounds, norming procedures, and multiple readers ensures that student writing can be graded fairly.

It’s not that… holistic rubrics provide inaccurate measurements of writing quality. True that combining components such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar in a conventions writing category does not isolate the component skills for separate evaluation. However, this limitation does not negate the fact that the multiple measures assessed in a holistic rubric produce an accurate picture of writing achievement.

So, why shouldn’t we use holistic rubrics?

We should use holistic rubrics for many writing assessments. However, we shouldn’t use holistic rubrics to teach writing. Holistic rubrics are, by design, summative assessments. Summative assessment is limited to evaluation, and evaluation is not instruction.

But doesn’t effective evaluation lead to better instruction?

Perhaps, but only minimally. Teachers can gain some insight from holistic rubric evaluations as to which categories require additional writing instruction for their next writing assignment. But the data gleaned from holistic rubrics is too general and multi-faceted to specifically inform teachers as to how to adjust instruction.

Most importantly, holistic rubrics do little to inform the student writer.

Holistic rubrics provide no diagnostic and no formative assessment to the writer. Simply telling a student to read a holistic rubric to guide their writing gives only paltry assistance. Having peer response groups assign levels of performance on holistic rubrics is akin to the “blind leading the blind.”

Holistic rubrics are fine for quick overviews and are the staples of performance-based standardized tests, such as the SAT®; however, they serve little instructional purpose and teachers and their students would be better served by using analytical rubrics.

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