Developing Performance Rating Scales

Adapted from: Walvoord, B.E., & Anderson, V.J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Performance rating scales establish a common format for stating performance evaluation criteria, while leaving the criteria for individual teachers to establish. Faculty members may use performance rating scales to assess any student performance or portfolio of student performances – written, oral, clinical, and so on. Performance rating scales tend to be assignment-specific; that is, the criteria are different for each assignment or test. As applied here, performance rating scales represent a way of explicitly stating a teacher’s criteria, and are used in the classroom to make grading criteria very clear and specific.

Besides helping teachers to delineate and communicate their performance criteria and standards, performance rating scales can be used for departmental or institutional assessment. As stated above, performance rating scales provide a common format for stating different teachers’ criteria and standards; it is this common format that permits assessment. The specific criteria and standards used to evaluate various course assignments need not be the same for assessment purposes (although departments always have the option of developing common criteria and standards). Performance rating scales, because they are very explicit, allow criteria to be made public and understandable to outside audiences. Most importantly, they clarify to fellow faculty members one’s criteria and standards, which facilitates discussions of programmatic effectiveness and needs.

Characteristics of Performance Rating Scales

It is helpful, in understanding performance rating scales, to place them along two continua:

  1. From unstated criteria (“It feels like a B”) to highly explicit criteria (performance rating scales)

  2. From norm-referenced scoring (grading on a curve) to criterion-referenced scoring (performance rating scales).

Performance rating scales are both highly explicit and criterion-referenced. To construct a performance rating scale, the teacher (1) identifies the factor or set of traits that will count for the scoring (such as “thesis,” “materials and methods,” “use of color,” “eye contact with client,” and so on); (2) builds a scale for scoring the student’s performance on that factor or set of traits; and (3) evaluates the student’s performance on a given assignment or activity against those criteria.

How to Construct a Performance Rating Scale

If possible, work from examples of past student performance, grading checklists, descriptions of criteria, comments on assignments or tests – anything that has helped you in the past to articulate criteria for students’ performances.

  1. Choose an exam or assignment that tests what you want to evaluate. Make clear your objectives for the assignment.

  2. Identify the factors or the set of traits that will count in the evaluation. These should be noun or noun phrases, such as “thesis,” “eye contact with client,” “use of color,” or “control of variables.” If you cannot immediately come up with a list of the factors or traits, then begin by describing an assignment that would receive an A, B, etc.

  3. For each factor or set of traits construct a four-point scale, where descriptive statements accompany each point. For example, a ‘4’ thesis is “limited enough to treat within the scope of the essay and is clear to the reader; it enters the dialogue of the discipline as reflected in the student’s sources, and it does so at a level that shows synthesis and original thought; it neither exactly repeats any of the student’s sources nor states the obvious.”

  4. Try out the scale with a sample of student work or review with colleagues and revise.

Scoring with a Performance Rating Scale

Performance rating scales tend to be revised as you use them, and they should be. The benefit of doing a performance rating scale lies as much in the hard thinking it forces the teacher to do, and in the influences it exerts on teaching and learning, as in the final scales that emerges.

Why Take the Time to Develop a Performance Rating Scale?

How much time does it take to create a performance rating scale? That depends on whether you are only measuring one or two traits or ten. It also makes a difference whether you have previous assignment sheets or written grading criteria. Faculty members working from previous grading checklists have produced a draft of a four-trait performance rating scale in under an hour. Some faculty may need more time, depending on the amount of available information and detail incorporated in the scale.

Why should you spend the time? Users of performance rating scales have suggested several reasons.

  1. To make grading more consistent and fair.

  2. To save time in the grading process. Once you are very clear about what you are looking for and have your performance rating scale, you should be able to move quickly through students’ work.

  3. To diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses very specifically in order to teach more effectively.

  4. To track changes in your students’ performance over several semesters so that you may see how changes in your teaching affect student performance.

  5. To reach agreement with colleagues on criteria for common exams, for multiple sections, or for sequenced courses.

  6. To introduce clearer distinctions into your grading.

  7. To communicate with students the criteria and standards used to evaluate their work.