The No Child Left Behind act signed into law in 2002 made “accountability” a popular buzzword in education circles, as the law required schools to test students and meet state-established goals showing yearly progress.
That law continues to hold schools accountable for students’ ability to learn — only that word isn’t used nearly as often. Today, all the talk is about “rigor.”
Educators tout the benefits of a rigorous curriculum, rigorous testing. The Common Core State Standards, which the Iowa State Board of Education voted to adopt in 2010, stress that the “new standards will be used to revise curricula and state tests to make learning more uniformly rigorous across the country.”
So what is rigor?
Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll find a bleak definition — strictness, severity, or harshness; inflexible accuracy or adherence. Linn-Mar Superintendent Katie Mulholland doesn’t like the word for that very reason.
“I prefer challenging, mind-stretching, engaging,” Mulholland said. “When I think of course work that is challenging and engaging, I think of a student who really gets into it, a student who asks questions, explores and goes beyond the classroom.”
More than retention
Iowa educators believe that rigor means more than basic recitation of classroom skills.
“Most of the time, rigor refers to the complexity, the cognitive complexity of the curriculum,” said Ying Ying Chen, College Community’s executive director of learning services. “Students explore subjects with greater depth and apply classroom learning to the world around them.”
It’s multilevel education — first comprehending, then applying that knowledge to real life.
"In education, rigor is a level above recall and memory,” said Pam Ehly, director of instruction for the Iowa City school district.
In that regard, the Iowa Core and the Common Core State Standards are the epitome of the idea of academic rigor.
For instance, the common standards stress that math skills taught in the elementary classrooms be more than procedural. There has to be a conceptual understanding to ensure “students are learning and absorbing the critical information they need to succeed at higher levels — rather than the current practices by which many students learn enough to get by on the next test, but forget it shortly thereafter, only to review again the following year.”
Forty-four of the country’s states, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which focus specifically on English language arts and mathematics.
The Iowa Core identifies concepts and skills for kindergarten through 12th grade in literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, and 21st century skills.
The Cedar Rapids school district points to increased student participation in Advanced Placement classes as an example of academic rigor.
“More and more kids are getting into these higher level courses, higher expectations, and I think that’s reflected in the percentage of students who performed high on the standardized tests as well,” said Sandy Stephen, Cedar Rapids’ executive administrator of secondary education.
“It gets back to the concept of high expectations,” said Jason Glass, director of the State Department of Education. “When we look at the highest performing systems in the world, they have really high expectations for their students.”
Iowa districts are aligning curriculum so that it meets both the Iowa Core and State Standards. According to the Iowa Department of Education, a school that has fully implemented the Iowa Core is engaged in an ongoing process of data gathering and analysis, decision making, identifying actions, and assessing impact around alignment and professional development focused on content, instruction, and assessment.
Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa, which develops Iowa’s standardized tests, will introduce new assessments to Iowa schools this year that also align with both programs. At the same time, the assessments will address rigor with reports that identify its multiple meanings.
There’s the state definition of proficiency, which determines how students are learning in regards to No Child Left Behind accountability standards. Then there’s the idea of college-readiness, of making sure students are prepared for life after high school.
“One is very much the benchmark we’ve all been watching since No Child Left Behind, but as we map out college readiness on the new Iowa Assessments, that’s a much higher bar from where proficiency has been,” said Catherine Welch of Iowa Testing Programs.
Which, essentially, is academic rigor — expecting more from students.“It means you have to challenge a student and the educational system to push learning beyond the surface or mediocrity levels,” Glass said. “You have to push learning to almost to a level where there’s discomfort so people have to really work hard and adapt, improvise. You’re asking kids and educators to push beyond their comfort zones and achieve at higher levels. (Rigor is) aligned with this notion of having really high expectations, teaching them and getting students to learn and getting past that thinking just loving kids is enough and kids being happy is enough. That’s important, but it’s also important that we constantly push them to learn and grow.”