The Urban rubric

Urban’s grading system sets the school apart from almost all high schools across the country. Giving students detailed rubrics and narrative feedback on all assignments rather than a single letter grade fosters a deep passion for learning. Or does it? Within the Urban student body, there are mixed feelings about rubrics. Some students appreciate Urban’s unique rubric system and all the behind-the-scenes work that the school administration has done to put students’ learning first, while others critique the system and believe that there are better ways to assess students.

How did the rubric and Urban’s grading system come to be?
When Urban was founded in 1966, the school administration wanted to ensure that a guiding founding principle was the idea of intrinsic motivation. “[Urban] really wanted students to be getting feedback the way you do in life and be more like lifelong learners, so they created a system with narrative feedback and they weren’t going to have grades at all,” said former Urban Dean of Faculty Jonathan Howland. However, after discussing their plans with colleges, the school administration decided to record grades but not show them to students because colleges said they would not consider Urban students without grades.

From 1966 to the early 1990s, “Urban’s approach to giving feedback to students was a very lazy affair, somewhat incoherent, teacher dependent and certainly not standards based,” said Howland. “If you were getting criticism, it was couched in ways that you could pretend weren’t that critical. … You weren’t necessarily getting the kind of feedback that could lead to actionable adjustments.” Students received lots of feedback on assignments but never saw any rubrics or grades.

In the early 1990s, Urban began showing students interims but they only included a narrative – no rubric. Rubrics were added to interims and course reports in the early 2000s because many felt that Urban was withholding too much of the information about student learning. “It needed to be shared. It needed to be exposed,” said Howland. “What the rubric should do is expose or reveal the componentry of the overall achievement standards of the grade and give you actionable specific detailed feedback about individual elements of your learning, rather than just blind you with the big blinking light of the ABCD [grade] or the overall achievement [checkmark].”

Around the same time Urban began using rubrics, the school also began showing students their GPA at the end of every school year. “What was happening was that students were getting to the college conversation and that was the first time they were ever having a grade. It was hard to be able to understand ‘what kind of colleges should I be thinking about’ when the first time you ever had any concept of what your grades were was the fall of your senior year,” said Charlotte Worsley, assistant head for student life.

2011 marked a significant shift in Urban grading. After two years of intense conversation within the school administration regarding Urban’s grading system, the school began to share final grades with students on course reports, the “Overall Achievement” row was added to interim rubrics and the use of rubrics was expanded to encompass all major assessments. “The argument for that was that many students and many families felt that the school was withholding information that would be meaningful, helpful and potentially influential to students,” said Howland. “The main factor was just about trying to walk this line between being a school that wants more than anything else to nourish the love of learning [and being] less afraid of the hard news, bumps and struggles that pertain to achieving that level of learning.”

During this period, the school administration also established what letter grade would line up with each column of the rubric. Most importantly, the school needed to determine the “At Standard” grade so that they could fill in the rest of the rubric from there. “We pretty much just looked at the school-wide GPA and the school GPA was the average,” said Howland. “Rather than try to change that to a C average, we felt, ‘let’s just call it what it is,’” so “At Standard” became a B.

Do rubrics allow for teacher variation?
“It does allow for a lot of subjectivity. I think that really frustrates a lot of Urban students when it feels like with different teachers in the same class, you could get different grades,” said Ryan Steinbach ‘22.

While Lindsey Bailey ‘24 also thinks that teachers see the rubric in different ways, she understands that it’s not possible for all teachers to grade exactly the same. “It’s always going to happen with teachers because teachers are humans and they’re not perfectly uniform,” she said. “[However,] I have gotten the same check marks for two classes and gotten completely different letter grades. And that’s weird.”

A senior, who has been granted anonymity to protect her privacy, had a similar experience. “The problem with [the rubric] is it gives too much flexibility, where teachers can kind of give you whatever grade they want. … One time, I watched my teacher put my rubric check marks and it was just completely random.”

However, while many students can reflect on an experience where they felt that they would have gotten a different grade if they had a different teacher, students do not perceive there to be a large enough conversation among Urban adults. “I think that teachers and departments don’t acknowledge [teacher subjectivity] because it’s difficult to acknowledge. It feels like acknowledging a flaw,” said Steinbach. He believes that it’s something the school needs to recognize. “Different teachers are going to grade different students differently. [We need to] work to resolve that and bridge those gaps and have clearer communication on that.”

However, teachers feel that each department spends a significant amount of time working to ensure that grading is consistent across all teachers. “One of the things we do as a science department is we practice every year grading together and recalibrating, making sure that we’re clear about what we identify as the most important things that we’re looking for,” said Mary Murphy, science teacher. Murphy also believes that the rubric helps decrease grading discrepancies between teachers. “It helps from class to class being taught by many different people to have elaboration on assessments so that your students can feel like they can be in my class or [someone else’s] and the assignments are being assessed similarly,” she said. “We’re humans, we’re not robots, so I might not read a lab report and have the exact same [check marks], but I guarantee it will have around the same grade.”

While the English department also spends time to ensure that grading is consistent, Cathleen Sheehan, English department chair, acknowledges that it is difficult to grade exactly the same across the board. “Sometimes it’s just hard to place the checkmark if someone is sort of in between, so it forces you as a teacher to put somebody in a box [and choose a column],” she said.

Teachers and administrators spend a significant amount of time working to ensure that learning continues to be equitable using the rubric, frequently re-evaluating how they grade. Charisse Wu, history teacher and class of 2022 dean, said, “I grade things without people’s names on them. [I am] making sure that any of my own biases that I may or may not be aware of myself are not there.”

Despite students’ beliefs that some teachers grade significantly easier or harder than others, Worsley does not think that there is such a thing as teacher subjectivity at Urban. “Honestly, I believe that it’s an illusion. We do a lot of behind-the-scenes. Everybody teaching the same course compares their grades.” Worsley and the rest of the grade deans spend time reading over all course reports. “I read all the rubrics and [the grade deans and I] check for congruence. … If you actually look at the data, we just do too much behind-the-scenes. I just don’t think it’s really true.”

How are rubrics beneficial to students’ learning?
Despite complaints that rubrics allow for too much flexibility in grades, many Urban students would not choose to get rid of rubrics if given the opportunity. “Rubrics are necessary if you want to really incorporate the vast number of attributes that Urban wants to encourage students,” said Steinbach. “[They] allow teachers to account for nuances.”

Kenny Daniels, math teacher, agrees that rubrics are necessary because a grade can become very one-dimensional. “The rubric allows us to evaluate students on a broad range of things. … It’s not always so simple as just a number.”

While rubrics can be complicated and hard to understand at times, they offer significantly more detail than a letter grade. “Rubrics really tell you, especially during interims, the exact spot where I have to improve and I can use interims as a way to improve later on,” said Paris Cardenas ‘24.

Wu believes that the rubric is particularly helpful within the history department. “The pros of the rubric are that students can actually see the different components of the writing that we are looking at in closer detail and thinking about how those skills can connect to their comprehension and reading and communication,” she said. The rubric allows teachers to both praise students and explain where they can continue to improve; it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

Coming from a school where she could constantly check her grade, Bailey also values Urban’s rubric system. “I appreciate the fact that it’s not like I’m constantly calculating my [grade point] average,” she said.

Rubrics also provide more detail about the assignment itself, which students could not get with just a letter grade. “When you don’t have rubrics, a student has no idea what they’re being assessed on and that’s a problem,” said Murphy. “Rubrics can help lay out ‘here’s what your teacher’s looking for in the assignment to show your understanding.’”

How does class participation and effort impact rubrics and grades?
“I think effort’s important,” said Bailey. “[However,] you can’t really gauge how much a person is putting in.” Bailey believes that this lines up with Urban’s rubrics because it’s difficult for teachers to fully understand what students are doing outside of class time that pertains to the class material.

“I think effort is hard because sometimes I worry that it’s just about my perception of a student’s effort,” said Sheehan. While there is no specific row for effort or class participation on the English rubric, Sheehan said, “in a case where a student is improving, I might actually weigh it a little more heavily just because I want to acknowledge progress. But that gets a little fuzzy, so I try to really hold myself accountable to the same standard across students.”

Panayiota Theodosopoulos, former Urban science teacher, said the science department doesn’t include participation or effort on rubrics when grading. “Someone could be working really hard but still not be meeting that certain learning outcome, so I think [participation and effort] are really separate [from grading],” she said. “That’s why we have the [comments under the rubric]; the narrative really pulls that in.”

Daniels cares about the effort students put into his math classes as well as overall participation. “If you’re working as hard as you possibly can to understand something, I can tell, and that definitely affects how I look at the overall picture.”

Cardenas believes that effort should matter more than it does in most classes, though they’re not sure of exactly how it can be shown. “Effort can be hidden. I put a lot of effort into things and sometimes my teachers don’t see it. There’s just no way for me to show it, which is really annoying,” they said. “I think effort should matter, maybe a little more than test scores, because I tried, even if the test scores aren’t great.”

How do rubrics relate to stress, pressure and perfection?
“This is how an Urban student reads the rubric. Ready for it? From left to right: F. F. F. F. A.” said Mary Murphy. “I think the challenge at Urban, despite what we’re trying to do here as a school [and] despite the culture, [is] now students just read [rubrics] and distill it to a grade rather than looking at the feedback.” Murphy credits a lot of this to external societal culture.

“If you get below standard and work really hard on an assignment, you almost feel like you’re a below standard student, even if it’s just for one assignment,” said Catie Crehan ‘25. Having been at Urban for less than a year, Crehan already feels this pressure to achieve.

“Students are being told from the beginning, as soon as they see a rubric, ‘you have to perform, that is the expectation, and doing anything less than perfection … is subpar,’” said Steinbach. He credits rubrics for a lot of the stress he and other students feel at Urban.

“I think that students often get stressed out if they don’t feel like they can perform in every aspect of the class and I think that’s sort of naive,” said Theodosopoulos. “[Students] shouldn’t feel like they have to be perfect in everything.”

While stress and pressure are prevalent in all high schools, some Urban students believe that rubrics allow for significantly more. “Sometimes, it can feel like there’s no floor to an A,” said Julia Susser ‘22. “You just keep on working [and] there’s no amount [where you can safely feel that you] have an A. Basically, Urban teachers can make you just work and work and work and you just don’t know what grade you’re at.”

While most current Urban students feel a significant amount of pressure to achieve, the pressure wasn’t always so extreme. The amount of stress and pressure that Urban students feel has increased dramatically since the school’s founding as the average school-wide GPA has increased. “I would argue that it’s not just simple grade inflation,” said Howland. “Urban’s just become a school where students and families who are really serious about learning are more compelled to want to come. So, when you get more earnest, intellectually inclined, nerdy kids into the building, then the GPA is going to swell.”

If there are grades, there is bound to be stress amongst students. So, is there a way to get rid of stress or at least decrease stress levels significantly? “I mean, you know what my answer is?” said Mary Murphy. “Get rid of grades. That’s my radical answer. They’re not working for us. At all.” The question is, “would [Urban] be that bold?”