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4 reasons to switch to holistic rubrics today!

May 4, 2015

I recently finished a marathon of grading portfolios, and grading revised portfolios for my students. It’s a stressful and busy time, but one thing I’m very happy about is the way that my use of holistic rubrics allows me to focus this grading work on student growth in reading, writing and thinking.

A few years ago I used analytical rubrics*. These are the rubrics that function more like a checklist, where students can get 10 points for their thesis statement, and then get 7 points for their use of evidence. A holistic rubric however, generally describes what a product (such as an essay, analysis paragraph etc.) looks like at each level, such as this example from my “Analysis Writing” rubric:

BCLA 10th grader (Meets Expectations)


  • Student identifies details that are relevant to the text overall1 and that clearly connect to each other, although the connection might be less interesting or clear than at the Honor Roll level.
  • Student accurately describes the literary device(s) (aka “writer’s moves”) discussed
  • Student clearly and accurately describes an important idea from the text overall1, though the idea may not be a nuanced interpretation. However, the interpretation is still abstract, but not clichéd.
  • Student cites evidence correctly, and attempts to use us in the most useful way
  • Student completely explains the connections between details (evidence) and the text overall in part by attempting to use signal words to describe relationships between ideas


While the bullet points make this rubric look a bit more “analytical,” the reality is that I use it in holistic way. I have just found that students fine it easier to grasp a rubric that is broken up into pieces, rather than two long and complex sentences that describe essentially the same idea.

After using these rubrics for two years (with some minor revisions in language)  I have seen them help students grow far more than my analytical rubrics ever did, even though I don’t spend much time “teaching” the rubrics to my students. Here is why I’m now such a fan of these holistic rubrics and how they are actually facilitating the improvement of student writing rather than simply recording it.

1) Feedback, not grades, is the goal. Holistic rubrics support this. Through most of a term I give students in my class tons of feedback on their writing and minimal feedback via grades. They can get a 100 out of 100 for simply completing an essay, even if it still needs tons of development. Because my rubric is holistic and tied to terms like “Meet Expectations” rather than giving points for different parts of the writing, it is easier for students to understand how their first draft needs substantial revision in order to “meet expectations” even though their completion grade (which uses points instead) is 100/100.

2) Good writing and mediocre writing can receive the same score on an analytical rubric. I’ve run into this problem time and time again.When I used analytical rubrics to grade essays I often found that simple, formulaic writing with a 1-sentence thesis statement and some basic evidence with a little bit of explanation often received the same point value as writing where the student made a more nuanced point, or used more interesting evidence that connected to the thesis in interesting ways, or even more important developed from the beginning to the end. Often this was because the categories I measured were really just parts of the essay: one category for thesis statement, one category for evidence, one category for reasoning, etc. With all these parts separated there was no good way of assessing how well the writing flowed or was developed. It also meant there was no good way on my analytical rubric there was no good way to capture how students were taking risks, and important part of writing development.

3) Holistic rubrics are just better at assessing the way that the parts of an essay work together. When the whole essay (or any piece of writing) is described together it became easier for me to parse out what was strong and weak about student writing. Take a recent example: I was giving students feedback about a pretty standard essay about the memoir Night. As I was reading student essays and considering what feedback they needed to move up ion the rubric, I quickly realized that their reasoning and explanation of their evidence needed more work. More specifically, students were basically paraphrasing their evidence rather than actually explaining how it supported their thesis. When I used to use analytical rubrics I would have thought this was an isolated problem in the “reasoning” section. However, because I was using a holistic rubric and looking at the essay more as a whole, I realized that part of the reason the student reasoning was lacking was because their thesis statements were overly simplistic. When you have an overly simplistic, obvious thesis statement it is hard to develop interesting reasoning because, really, what was their interesting to say? Thanks to this holistic view I was able to give students feedback that helped them develop a stronger thesis and then revise their reasoning accordingly.

4) Last but not least, holistic rubrics make grading simpler and faster. There are far fewer decisions to make about a student grade when they get one overall score rather than five or seven different scores for each part of a writing piece. Fewer decisions means faster grading. While I would love to tell you this faster grading leaves me with more time for personal pursuits, the reality is it just leaves more time for giving more meaningful feedback, focus on trends I see in student writing by class, etc. While I might not be able to escape work, I am able to make work more meaningful, and it certainly helps to make grading fun and enriching.

*Check out this description of the different rubric types for more detail on the difference between analytical and holistic rubrics

From → Assessment, Writing

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