Arizona Stories from School: Rigor Mortis

Collaboration. 21st Century Skills. Goal Setting. Inquiry. What do all of these have in common? They’re all buzz words that have been dusted off and brought back to the fore front of teacher speak over the last few years. (Collaboration was so big; I thought that we were going to have to go to the bathrooms in pairs so as not to waste any time being alone!)

Today’s new buzz word is rigor. I hear it all of the time! “We need more rigor!” “I’m developing lessons with more rigor for my students.” “I’m going to rigor this!” “I’m going to rigor that!” The focus with rigor has been brought about by the roll out of the Common Core standards. Our students do need more rigor to compete in a global society but all of this fanaticism over rigor makes me wonder. Do we really know what rigor means?

Common Core has sparked a huge debate in our country. People have found this issue very polarizing. You love them! You want to repeal them! You want to modify them! Everyone has an opinion on them. I have found that my opinion on them has evolved as I became more adept at working with them.  I like Common Core. (Please don’t stone me!) However, my struggle with Common Core is the inability to accurately measure how well my students are meeting them. The struggle is because rigor is tied to Common Core like a ball and chain.

One thing I love about Common Core is that my lessons now include many different methods to find solutions. It has given my students multiple paths to learning. As I monitor my lessons, I can see that my students are understanding the concepts. I feel that inner teacher pride that swells up when our students ‘get it.’ Then come the tests and my bubble pops. I have no control over the tests in my district. My students take a quarterly summative assessment mandated by the district. I also have to administer curriculum specific tests to be aligned with my site. I’ll just humbly admit that my class average is in the D range on many of these assessments. Like any good teacher, I reflect back onto what could be improved to increase student achievement. I think back to lesson delivery, student engagement and any other factor that comes to mind. I look over the test items to notice error trends and that’s when it hits me. It’s not me, it’s the test. (Maybe it is me but my blog sounds better if I blame the tests) The people who sit on high and create these assessments for the Common Core standards have mistaken rigor with just making things harder.

Grading tests used to be easy. 2 times 8 was 16. Boom! I know my student can multiply. Now I have to sift through a laborious word problem with confusing charts or graphics and determine where my students struggled. Did they have trouble with the actual ability to read? Did they struggle with analyzing the important information in the problem? Did they get mixed up with the vocabulary in the problem? Wasn’t the standard to interpret products? When did this turn into a reading test? I find myself now having to give multiple smaller informal assessments to see where my students are making errors. Although this is giving me a much clearer picture of my students and their abilities, this focus on rigor has forced to me to spend more time assessing. How do we use Common Core and design lessons and assessments that are challenging and rigorous but actually measure effectively the targeted skills?

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Donnie Dicus

Donnie Dicus is a National Board Certified Teacher working with elementary school students in Arizona.