Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Struggles with "Bump It Up Walls" and "Rubric" Assessment.

I'm a big advocate for personalized learning.  Huge actually which is why I am constantly looking for ways to put students in control of their learning.  When I talk about personalized learning  I don't just mean in the way my students learn but also in the way I assess my students learning.   Yes, they have required "skills" or "content" that they are expect to learn in the year that I have them but how I assess each student is personalized too.  This leads to two common assessment tools that I struggle with "bump it up walls" and "rubric" assessment.

I've had many conversations about "bump it up walls".  To be clear to me a "bump it up" wall is a collection of work samples that show forward progression. Take for example with grade one writing - the first sample may be a simple drawing, the second a drawing with some initial consonant sounds, the third the addition of  more words to accompany the drawing, the next  some sentences, followed by  more detailed sentences, paragraphs etc.  You get the idea - writing samples along a continuum that help a child see where they can go next with their writing.  It's a great way for children to identify where they are writing and where they can head to next. I get that and I love that about "bump it up" walls. Where I struggle with these walls is that I often wonder if they limit  student progress to the way that the wall demonstrates.  As much as we'd all like learning how to write to be a sequential skill is it really?  Does this sequential "bump it up" wall hinder the child from adding more detail, or building stronger character development, or adding voice to his or her writing?  While these items can be part of a "bump it up wall" where would they fit in?  Most things we learn at school are not linear in nature but by creating a "bump it up wall" we are making the learning linear. As much as they help some students are "bump it up" walls hindering others?

The other thing I struggle with is "rubric" assessment.  In fact they drive me crazy!  Now to be clear, I highly value the various criteria that are within a rubric but I struggle with the box format of one. Far too often when I am looking at students work it falls into more than one box.  What I much prefer is a specific list of criteria and I highlight each criterion individually, outside of the box.  If I need a four point rating scale then I rate each separate criterion on its own and so each student sees exactly where they are successful and where they need a bit more help. Like with bump it up walls students gain skills a different rates and it drives me crazy when we assume they will gain specific skills in a specific order. To me that's what the neat  box format rubric tries to show.

What common assessment tools are you struggling with?


  1. Karen, this is a really interesting post, and I know that we've spoken about some of these topics before.I'm just wondering a bit about your definition of rubrics and bump it up walls.

    1) For a rubric, I've always created ones that address expectations from the four different levels of the achievement chart. Each expectation is then broken down into the four levels. I highlight where the students fall for each expectation being assessed (and even have students assess themselves on the same rubric). Sometimes students fall in between two levels, and that's fine. This is where pluses and minuses come into play. Aren't you doing the same thing with your highlighting system? How would it vary?

    I think that in BC, you don't give marks for students in Grade 1. If that's the case, I may not use a rubric. What about co-created Success Criteria with personalized feedback for next steps? This sounds more like what you're already doing, and it makes good sense if marks aren't an issue.

    2) For a bump it up wall, usually the work samples are based on a cluster of expectations connected to our TLCP (class focus). The work samples that you choose would need to highlight the broadest range of writing, so that students can use it well to move up to the next level. The writing is also going to capture all of your Success Criteria (and this would focus on way more than just conventions). I used to use post-it notes with students to highlight various key factors (from conventions to voice to expansion of ideas) so that the bump it up wall didn't hinder creative thought, but helped students see more options. Even using different forms of writing or multiple examples might help students think in different ways. Would something like this work in your classroom?

    I agree with you about the need to personalize learning, and I love that you do. I also believe that all students need to be evaluated on curriculum expectations unless an IEP (individual education plan) is in place. In this case, rubrics and bump it up walls can even be modified and individualized to address these different expectations. I've done this too. I don't think that either of these tools need to put students into boxes -- it all depends on how we create them and how we use them. Thoughts? I'm curious to hear what others have to say on this topic!


    P.S. Sorry for such a long comment. I think it may be longer than your whole post. :)

    1. Aviva I appreciate your comment. I think when I boil down what you wrote and what I wrote we both agree that assessment feedback needs to be personalized for each child in our class if we want it to have value.

      Teaching/assessing our curriculum is important for us to do with or without letter grades and you are correct that I do not have to give my students letter grades. In fact I work in a district that is piloting letter grade free report cards in K-7. I appreciate that you do your best to personalize the information on your class rubric or bump-it-up wall.

      I struggle with how many of my students really need a bump-it-up wall to improve. I’d hope that good teaching would help my students see where their work could move towards.

      As I wrote in the blog title, I struggle with rubric and bump-it-up-walls but do believe personalized assessment is so key.


  2. Hey Karen,

    I think this post connects nicely to Aviva’s post, “Good” Is Not “Good Enough”. I have a passion for assessment done right. As a student I experienced a lot of assessment done wrong. Even as a beginning teacher I cringe to the point of wanting to track down my former students and apologize to them for the narrow use of assessment of learning.
    Rubrics have their place to be sure, but I don’t think they are the be all and end all of student assessment. Co-creating these with the class and using a healthy amount of feedback to inform next steps as Aviva suggests goes a long way to improving the rubric as an assessment tool. When looking at a rubric as a grading tool it gets tempting to turn levels into marks thus changing the nature of a rubric and turning it into a check-bric or a mark-bric. Like any tool, it can be used the wrong way.
    The bump-it-up-the-wall tool might suffer from the same weakness as a rubric. For writing, some teachers make use of strong and weak samples of student work. Usually the weak sample is teacher generated, while the strong sample is a compilation of some of different students’ work. Between the two samples is a line without gradation. No indication that halfway between the two equals 50%, simply that you are looking for evidence that places the work as close to the strong sample as possible. The closer they are to the strong sample, and the further they are from the weak sample, indicate they are closer to the learning target.
    I have had the best results with a combination of a clear learning target, plenty of teacher modelling, clear co-constructed success criteria, plenty of short conferences focusing on formative learning and time for students to articulate their own evidence of learning. Yes, this takes time, but in the end I have received some excellent work which really makes the whole marking thing quite easy.

    1. Colin, I love the notion "assessment done right" because ultimately that's what this discussion is all about. Both rubric and bump-it-up-walls have value (more for some than others) but they both have weaknesses too. You sum up your comment so wonderfully in your final paragraph in that best results require a fine balance of tools. There is no one way that works best for all and this is where we need to be aware of the needs of each of our students. For every student in our class it's the fine balance of different approaches. Thank you Colin. I appreciate you voice here.

  3. Very interesting points by all.

    However, if we are really going to embrace a personalized/individualized approach to thinking and learning, rubrics and bump-it-up walls are anachronisms because they conform to a group standard.

    The only meaningful way to ensure personal growth is to provide meaningful and descriptive feedback that is free of any reference to levels.

    This will eliminate a hierarchy of perceived ability by the students....let's face it: they will label themselves as a 'level/stage two' if you place them on a rubric or wall.

    We don't want them to see themselves as numbers. We want them to think about their successes and next steps to even more success.

    Consider the best coaches in the world. None of them would ever dream of creating a rubric or bump it up wall. They talk with their athletes and provide necessary feedback.

    Students deserve so much more than the over-rubricized world we adults have created.

    1. I completely agree with everything you're saying here, but what if we are required to assign marks (on our report cards)? I need to give my students marks on a report card, & I think it's only fair for them to see these marks first. I also think they need to be part of the process, hence self-assessment. So I try to focus more on Success Criteria and descriptive feedback versus rubrics & bump it up walls, but also knowing that marks are my current reality. Sometimes what we think works best (& maybe even know works best) doesn't always fit with what we have to do.


      P.S. This being said, if I didn't have to give marks, but thoughts on assessment/evaluation would change. I do believe totally in what you're saying.

    2. Wow, I love what you have to say here because its focus is on a child and his/her learning journey and nothing else. This is not to say that there aren't things we can do to help our students move forward in their journey. As you so clearly wrote "[t]he only meaningful way to ensure personal growth is to provide meaningful and descriptive feedback that is free of any reference to levels." I think this is where I struggle so much with rubric and bump-it-up-walls. As I continue to mention I do see value in both of those tools but they just don’t’ sit well with me when personalization is so important. Your points are very well heard.

      I wonder if instead of a class bump it up wall that together we highlight various work samples pointing out a specific point from each sample. No hierarchy between the samples but just samples of what a certain skill could look like in practice so students have some where to look for additional support.

      Thanks for your input to this conversation. I appreciate your voice here. Karen

    3. "The only meaningful way to ensure personal growth is to provide meaningful and descriptive feedback that is free of any reference to levels.

      This will eliminate a hierarchy of perceived ability by the students....let's face it: they will label themselves as a 'level/stage two' if you place them on a rubric or wall.

      We don't want them to see themselves as numbers. We want them to think about their successes and next steps to even more success."

      Yes. To all of that. NMCFDELK, I love that you've articulated this so clearly. I sometimes feel isolated when I have conversations about assessment with other teachers (especially when I taught Grades 1 and 2) because when I express these ideas they are often met with incomprehension. I can't stomach the idea of hanging anything on the wall that gives children a visual reminder of all the ways their work doesn't measure up to someone else's. It's not developmentally appropriate, or necessary for growth. The idea that we're supposed to teach our youngest learners that they need to meet an arbitrary set of criteria (and it often is arbitrary; across cultures, curriculum expectations by age differ widely) just makes me sad. Students need clear individual feedback about what they're doing well, how much they've grown, and strategies for where to go next. No charts necessary. The only type of 'anchor chart' I ever used was like the ones from Lucy Calkin's Writer's Workshop series that had lists such as "Did I remember to "show not tell" ? These charts are only used as a shared reference point to guide discussion during individual conferences; where the student talks about the improvements in their current work by comparing it to their past writing, not to the writing of someone else, or to 'exemplars'. We look at one thing, and we look at it closely, and we find ways to improve it and celebrate that improvement. And then the cycle begins again.

      This is getting too long! But I wanted to add that this year I heard about a 'success chart' I could get behind, and it was a writing exemplar chart for K-1 that a teacher had posted - the heading was "There are many ways to write! Some of them look like this:" and there were pages showing scribbling, pages showing early pictures and squiggly lines to indicate letters, pages with representational drawings, diagrams, pages with invented spelling and pages with conventional spelling. They weren't presented in a linear way from 'worst' to 'best', instead they were all placed randomly on the chart. Children in that class apparently referred to that chart with pride, because their work was always represented there, so it was confirmation that they were writers (regardless of the developmental level of their writing). And isn't that what we want them to see when they look around the classroom - confirmation that they are accepted, known, and that their work is valued?

      Meaningful and descriptive feedback that gives a child their previous work as a point of comparison is a fantastic way to help children's academic growth in any subject area. It makes me sad that having to give grades might be a reason to do things to children that we do not agree with. I wrote 'to' and not 'with' because however much we think we are co-creating rubrics and bump it up walls, they are ultimately an adult creation. We impose the structure on children, and we are ultimately responsible for having them in our classrooms. So it's so affirming to find a space where people are having these discussions about assessment, and trying to make it more personal, more affirmative (and less about fixed mindset promoting negative comparisons, or competitions between students) and ultimately more effective in producing life-long enthusiastic learners.

      Thanks for posting about this topic, Karen - it was a great read!

  4. Ugh - so good to hear that I'm not alone with my philosophical struggle regarding rubrics. I completely agree that they tend to make student learning and progress feel linear and I have difficulty applying them throughout the day, as our district requires. I also question the developmental appropriateness for our youngest learners. I think that clear expectations, thoughtful teaching, personal learning goals, and timely, relevant feedback and record keeping are more valuable assessment tools than posted rubric after rubric. I just don't think that they typically honor the diverse academic, social, and emotional needs of young learners. I certainly agree that "sometimes what we think works best doesn't always fit with what we have to do"! I think that there is a disconnect between the pedagogy of personalized learning and some of our district non-negotiables: e.g. posted rubrics and rating scales.

    1. Bingo! I am fortunate that I am rarely required to use a rubric but I also do see value in having co-constructed criteria to help children see ways to keep their learning moving forward. I’m not keen on them being hierarchal though and I can’t stand the little boxes that they create because I’ve said, rarely does a student fit perfectly into any box. In that sense they are not personalized at all. Since you are required to use rubrics (perhaps you could write your higher ups explaining why you struggle with using them and what you do instead?) I wonder if you can pull apart the rubric, list each criterion that was in the rubric and look at learning/growth in those small chucks, one criterion at a time.

      Thank you for adding to the conversation. I appreciate your thinking. You are not alone at all.

  5. I'm coming late to the party, but I have loved reading all these comments. At my school we are required to use a standard rubric for everything we do. I agree that this totally undermines the idea of individualized learning. I get so frustrated with rubrics. So much of the time I circle a part of the rubric because I have to choose something, but the child I am assessing could potentially be in any of those boxes. in the end I find myself choosing boxes to give the child the score I know he/she is at which renders the rubric useless. I may have to do it my way (checklist of individual skills) AND their way (using the rubric). This goes against my natural tendency to simplify everything I do.