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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Latest update: Rubric descriptors now integrated into the grading app

We differentiate rubric "descriptors" that are designed to set performance expectations vs feedback comments that promote student growth. Long overdue, your rubric descriptors are now integrated into the feedback-driven grading app.

Rubrics serve two purposes
It's taken me a while to wrap my brain around this, but I finally had my "a-ha!" moment and clearly saw that rubrics serve (at least) two distinct purposes:
Purpose #1: Rubrics set performance expectations for students before they attempt the assignment. 
Purpose #2: Rubrics provide performance feedback after their work is assessed and scored.
A typical rubric grid cell for, say, Evidence will go something like, "Uses inadequate examples, evidence, or reasoning to support its position." This sort of vague language always frustrated me because I only cared about Purpose #2 (rubrics as feedback). In fact, this was a large part of the motivation for me to create EssayTagger in the first place. I wanted to be able to give students more specific feedback at a per-sentence level. I wanted to be able to coach them on every individual piece of evidence rather than offering a single generic statement.

And I tended to poo-poo Purpose #1 because I set expectations in class by doing a ton of group and peer review where everyone evaluated samples and compared notes against my evaluations. It was amazing to see how close the class peer review averages were to my own determinations on the essay samples. At that point it didn't seem necessary to re-establish those expectations in a formal rubric.

So I built EssayTagger with only Purpose #2 in mind.

Enter "descriptors"
But many teachers told me that they believe strongly in Purpose #1 (using a rubric to set expectations). I try my best to avoid letting my personal biases get in the way and prevent other teachers from being able to incorporate EssayTagger into their classrooms.

So I developed the "descriptor" feature in EssayTagger to support Purpose #1. Descriptors set expectations. Enter them into your rubric and share it or print it out for your students. They can review the rubric and the descriptor text before they write the assignment.

Here's an example:
click to view full size

As you can see, this EssayTagger rubric looks like a traditional rubric with high-level expectation-setting descriptors.

However, because descriptors usually make for horrible feedback comments (failing to serve Purpose #2), they were kept separate from the targeted feedback comments that are the real bread-and-butter of the EssayTagger system.

Because of this separation--Purpose #1 vs Purpose #2-- I did not even display the descriptors in the grading app. I wanted to include them but I wasn't sure how to do it without creating confusion between descriptors and feedback comments.

Descriptors now integrated into grading app
A recent email exchange with Stephanie Bester of Thurgood Marshall Middle School finally prompted my second "a-ha!" moment and I finally figured out how to display the descriptors in the grading app in a way that would minimize confusion.
So now the descriptors appear at the bottom of the popup evaluation box when you hover over each quality level column:

It lists the quality level ("Beginning"), the rubric element being evaluated ("Supporting Evidence & Sources"), and the associated descriptor text for that quality level/rubric element combination ("Uses inadequate examples, evidence, or reasoning to support its position"). They appear as a reminder of the expectations set at each quality level, but it remains clear that you must still provide more specific feedback to guide your students.

To further drive home the difference between descriptors and high-quality feedback, consider this next example that uses Vicki Spandel's "Teacher 6 Point Rubric":

Click to see full size

Spandel's rather lengthy rubric descriptors remind us of the expectations set for Level 3 Sentence Fluency: "Mechanical but readable. Gangly, tangly, never-ending or chop-chop-choppy text common. Repetitive beginnings, little variety in length. Fragments (if used) do not work, dialogue (if used) a little stiff." But as we've graded we've created much more specific, actionable feedback comments for our students.

Note: Spandel's rubric content is her own copyrighted material.

Driven by teacher feedback
In addition to Stephanie, there were a number of other EssayTagger users that requested this feature and urged me to make it a high priority. So I offer an additional thanks to:

Samantha Spencer - El Camino Real Charter High School, Woodland Hills, CA
Sara Edelman - East Grand Rapids High School, Grand Rapids, MI
Daniel Jatovsky - Essex County College, Newark, NJ
Nick F.
Greg H. out in LA
and others!