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3 steps to increase the rigor of your assessments

Rigor is an increasing concern in our schools.  We continue to see evidence that our students at all grade levels are not working at a level that is challenging enough to prepare students for college and careers.  However, we often misunderstand the definition of rigor.  Rigor is “creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).”  The level of challenge in our assessments, which allows students to demonstrate learning at high levels, is crucial.  In order to provide rigorous assignments for our students, we need to assess the current level of rigor, revise tasks to raise the rigor, and implement and adjust.

Assess Current Level of Rigor

The first step is to assess the current level of an assessment.  Too often, teachers simply “use their best judgement” as to whether an assignment or task is rigorous.  However, most of our assessments are not written to require a rigorous demonstration of learning.  It’s important to use a set of specific criteria for rigor, so that teachers can accurately assess their assignments.  The sample below incorporates Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and other descriptors of rigor. 

Sample Criteria

Less Rigorous


Are students…

… applying information and/or interpreting standard information from a table, figure, or graphic?

… interpreting, predicting, or inferring?

… identifying main ideas or central themes?

… creating diagrams to explain concepts?

… determining cause and effect or specifying fact and opinion?

… explaining an answer using basic information or explaining steps followed?

… locating information to support explicit central ideas?

Are students…

… demonstrating higher-order thinking?

… recognizing and explaining misconceptions?

… determining credibility, biases and/or prejudices and justifying their conclusions?

… going beyond the text information, while demonstrating they understand the text?

... defending their work or justifying answers or solutions?

… identifying questions and designing investigations for a scientific problem?

When I work with teachers, there are particular descriptors in the chart that are less rigorous, but that teachers consider rigorous.  For example, teachers commonly consider application, interpretation, and inference to be rigorous.  Although they are more rigorous than basic recall, they are simply not at a truly rigorous level. Another common classroom strategy is for students to create a diagram to explain what they have learned.  Although an effective part of building understanding, it should be exactly that:  a step that builds toward rigorous learning.

Let’s look at a sample question to determine the level of rigor. 

What is the theme of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”? Make sure to use details from the text to support this choice.

As we consider the descriptors, in this case, students are identifying a central theme and explaining an answer using basic information.  Therefore, it is not a rigorous question. 

Revise to Raise the Rigor

Our next step is to revise the question to increase the rigor.  In order to do so, we need to incorporate the various criteria of rigor, and make appropriate adjustments.

What is the theme of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”? Make sure to use details from the text to support this choice. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” was written nearly 200 years ago. Justify whether this theme applies to today. Provide an example from modern life to validate your answer.

Notice the differences.  Students must demonstrate they understand the text, while moving beyond the text to incorporate information and examples from real life in a different time period. 

One common concern I hear from teachers is that they have too much to do, and in order to incorporate rigor, they will need to throw away everything they have done and start over.  As this example shows, simply revising and building on the existing assignment is an appropriate way to increase rigor.

Let’s look at other examples of less rigorous and more rigorous assignments.

Additional Examples

Less Rigorous

More Rigorous

Math:  Solve the equation. (all grade levels)

Given three examples of equations that are solved, identify the one that is incorrect, solve it correctly, and explain why it was not correct.

Language Arts:  In the most recent novel we read, the main character experienced a series of challenges.  Write your own story about experiencing challenges in life. (middle/high school)

We have all faced challenges in our lives and have read about or learned from others who have experienced trials. In a well-developed essay, explain how the trials we face can lead to positive changes and growth.  Using examples from your own life, real or fictional characters from books you’ve read, and/or historical figures to provide evidence to support your response. In your conclusion, be sure to include what advice you would give someone currently facing a challenge based on what you have concluded in your essay.

Science:  Plant seeds in a cup and watch what happens.  Draw pictures at the start and end. (kindergarten/grade 1)

As a group, discuss seeds.  Ask students to predict what would happen if they plant a seed.  Then, ask each student to plant a seed in the dirt in his or her cup.  Place the cups around the room, using different variables, such as sunlight and indoor lighting.   Ask students to draw a picture in their science journals of what they think will happen.  Each day, observe the seeds and draw in science journals their current observations.  Discuss as a group what is happening and why.  After seeds have sprouted, ask students to compare their plants.  Why are they different or the same?  Draw this in journals.  Discuss as a class, with answers such as, "mine grew more because it was in the sun".  At the end, have each student explain (justify) why his or her plant grew the way it did and why (variables) with a partner, and ask the partner to decide if that is correct.  Working together, have small groups of students choose someone’s plant that did not grow as much as others.  Ask them how they would solve that problem. In the whole group, ask students to explain how the variables (such as the sun) would make a difference with something else related to plants (like a garden).  Finally, ask students how these variables might matter to something other than plants. You’ll need to use specific guiding questions. 

Art:  Choose a partner.  Analyze their art work and explain why you like it, or dislike it. (upper elementary, middle school, high school)

Students move through an art gallery of work created by their classmates.  Each student chooses one piece of art and writes a short critique.  The critique must include the student’s opinion of the artwork, support of the opinion based on the lesson taught by the teacher and the student’s own experiences, and recommendations for improvement. 

Social Studies:  Compare and describe the perspectives of Stalin, Truman, Churchill, and Eleanor Roosevelt regarding World War II. (high school)

Imagine a dinner party with esteemed guests such as Stalin, Truman, Churchill, and Eleanor Roosevelt.   Using your knowledge of the Yalta, Potsdam, and Tehran conferences in the 1940’s, write a script in which these historical figures converse about their different views of what the world would look like after World War II.  Choose a character, and role play this scenario, keeping the original integrity of your guest intact. At your dinner party, be sure to include what each historical figure would say about the state of society today.

Implement and Adjust

The third step is to implement the assessment or task.  In order for students to be successful, the teacher needs to step back and plan instruction so they students are prepared for the assessment.  For example, in a math classroom, it is more rigorous for students to identify and explain misconceptions.  If we only solve equations or word problems, students are not necessarily equipped to work with misconceptions.  Providing opportunities to experience the types of expected tasks is critical.

As students complete the assessments, it is helpful to use a pattern assessment to determine any needed adjustments.  You might ask students to complete a quick self-reflection at the end of the assignment to help.

Sample Student Reflection Questions

  1. I know I did well on this assignment.
  2. I did my best, and I hope I did a good job.
  3. I think I did well, but I’m not sure I understood everything I needed to do.
  4. I understood the question, but I don’t think I knew enough to do my best.
  5. I didn’t understand the question.

When teachers complete a pattern analysis on students’ responses, they may determine that the task is acceptable (based on the first two responses), that students may not have mastered the content or that I did not prepare the students appropriately (based on responses 3 and 4), or that my prompt was unclear (response 5).    Based on the analysis, teachers can make appropriate revisions to this assessment, and prepare future tasks more effectively.

A Final Note

Increasing the rigor of tasks, assignments, and assessments is a key aspect of increasing the overall rigor of classroom instruction.  By assessing the current level of rigor, revising the assignment to incorporate more rigorous work, and implementing and adjusting the tasks, students will demonstrate understanding at a higher level. 

Barbara Blackburn was named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education in 2016, 2017, and 2018. She is a best-selling author of 21 books including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word, Rigor is Your School:  A Toolkit for Leaders, Rigor and Differentiation in the Classroom, and Rigor in the RTI/MTSS Classroom.