Rubrics Part 8: Writing Rubric Level Descriptions

In a previous rubrics post, Rubrics: Parts and PiecesI discussed the various parts of a rubric, including: levels, criteria, and success descriptors.  Today, I’ll look closely at success descriptors.

Success descriptors are the text within the cells of the rubric.  They describe what success looks like at any given level.  They can also be called level descriptors.  Depending on your preference, the words descriptors and descriptions may be used interchangeably.

The text can be formatted as a list or as a paragraph. and use both list and paragraphs styles depending on the department.  The rubric below is taken from a grade 9 phys. ed. assignment on conflict resolution. It shows how success descriptors describe success on a rubric criterion at a given level. Success descriptors are formatted as lists.

rubric - origins of conflict

Note that success descriptors are decomposed into smaller components: success criteria.

Success Criteria

Success criteria define how to achieve success at each level.  On the rubric above, note that there are 5-6 success criteria for the criteria: interpersonal skills (Row two).  Note that the success criteria are common to all levels of the criteria but have been modified to describe success at that level.  Depending on the scope of the assignment, success criteria can be drawn from specific objectives, learning goals, and even finer definitions of learning goals.

Writing Descriptions

When scaling success criteria to be appropriate for a specific level, subjective phrases such as “excellent” and “good” should be avoided in favor of quantitative descriptions such as often or always.  Better yet, try to use numerical values to quantify success at a specific level.  For example, the description “paragraphing is excellent” should be avoided in favor of  “paragraphing is frequent,” or “1-2 instances of run-on paragraphing”.

Success criteria should be rich with information and describe what a successful product looks like.  Again, thinking of paragraphs, avoid phrases like “paragraphing is of a high quality” in favor of  “related information is grouped into paragraphs,” or “paragraphs follow point-proof-comment model.”

Level descriptions should be as specific and detailed as possible.  They should describe what success looks like for each criterion and each level.

Scale success items according to level by adjusting the frequency descriptor.  For example, a level V might say:

  • paragraphing is frequent
  • related information is grouped into paragraphs
  • paragraphs follow point-proof-comment model

In comparison a Level II description might say:

  • paragraphs occasionally
  • some connections within paragraphs
  • occasionally follows point-proof-comment model

There is a difference of opinion on the presentation of level descriptions.  Some educators feel that level descriptions are best presented as a checklist, while others feel that description service presented as a narrative. In practice, it may be that either of these models is preferable, depending on the situation.

For example, checklist style descriptions may be more suitable for struggling readers, whereas narrative descriptions may be more appropriate for advanced students looking for the subtlety of a narrative description.

What are your thoughts on writing success descriptors.  It’s definitely the most challenging part of rubric writing.   Best of luck.

If you have questions or comments about this post or rubrics in general, leave a comment below , email me at, or catch me on twitter @TonyStecca.

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