(What’s So Special ‘Bout) Rigor, Grit and Standardized Testing?

In his 1979 song, “(What’s So Funny “Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Elvis Costello wonders;

So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding?

Imagine how different education reform and the Common Core State Standards would be if Elvis Costello had been their chief architect and lead writer rather than David Coleman, who infamously declared in April, 2011 at a NY State Department of Education Presentation;

As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

Rigor vs. Vigor

The Common Core’s exclusive focus on rigorous math and ELA standards may be well intended, but these standards fail to prepare students for the diverse expectations and vigorous challenges of post-secondary learning and working.

According to the Common Core web site;

The standards are: Based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills

And Barbara Blackburn has explained that;

True instructional 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, 2012).”

Rather than focusing on rigorous math/ELA standards and skills that prepare students for a standardized test, K-12 learning programs should focus on vigorous, purposeful, and transferable standards and skills that are relevant to students and prepare them for life.

Learning should be a self-directed and spirited journey of discovery. Students should be “free to learn” as they explore their interests and pursue their passions rather than simply following a curriculum map and standardized pathway to each Common Core learning standard.

Grit vs. Passion

Another justification or rationale for the rigorous Common Core Standards is that students must experience frustration and failure as they struggle with higher standards and harder tasks if they are going to develop grit and be more successful in school and life.

While resilience and perseverance are essential life skills, the notion that the best and most effective way to cultivate these traits is by compelling students to complete rigorous math and ELA activities is foolish.

The Common Core supports a test-centered and data-driven model of classroom instruction rather than a learning program that is student-centered and passion-driven. Unfortunately, ed reformers thirst for data now trumps our students thirst for knowledge.

data wall

The Common Core “demands” that all students achieve at higher levels and demonstrate deeper understandings when they are engaged in learning activities that are primarily determined by the standards and delivered by the teacher.

Rather than focusing our efforts on rigorous learning that cultivates student grit, we should be creating vigorous learning activities and experiences that capture students’ interest and stimulates their own desire to learn, also known as “flow”.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, students achieve flow when they find a challenge or task so enjoyable they will pursue it as a reward in itself.

When a person experiences flow they want to do more of an activity leading to advanced skill development and mastery of the task.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi further explains in, ”Thoughts About Education” …

“…Yet it seems increasingly clear that the chief impediments to learning are not cognitive in nature. It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to…

 Of the two main forms of motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic — I focus primarily on the second kind. Although both are needed to induce people to invest energy in learning, intrinsic motivation, which is operative when we learn something primarily because we find the task enjoyable and not because it is useful, is a more effective and more satisfying way to learn…”


Standardized Testing vs. Authentic Assessment

A standardized test does not provide a reliable or comprehensive measure of student learning or the skill level they have attained. A standardized test measures a students ability to apply the skills he or she has learned at a particular moment in time and in a standardized way.

The fact that a student does not demonstrate the ability to properly apply a numeracy or literacy skill during the administration of a standardized test is not evidence or proof that the students has not acquired that skill.

A standardized test may reveal how a student performs at a moment in time, but it cannot determine and tell you why this happened or predict how the student will perform in the future.

There are so many factors and variables that can impact student performance on a standardized test that is misleading and false to claim that student scores are a reliable means of predicting “college readiness” or measuring teacher quality.

A standardized  test does not provide meaningful information to support and improve student learning because the score only reveals what questions the student answered wrong, but not the reason why.

It would be foolish for a teacher to adjust or modify instructional practices based on a standardized test score when the new group of students they teach the following year have different cognitive abilities and disabilities.

The real time data generated by informal and formative classroom assessment ( informal + formative = informative) is the gold standard of effective student-centered classroom instruction, while the data generated by standardized and summative testing is about as useful and valuable as “fool’s gold”.

“Effective” teachers understand that actionable and meaningful feedback is essential to guide and support student learning, and this data should be provided “in the moment” while the student is actively engaged in a learning process.


Clearly, the decision to align and couple standardized tests to the Common Core is more about satisfying NCLB and teacher accountability requirements (VAM) than about informing classroom instruction and improving student  learning.

Learning standards serve as a framework and guide that generally dictate and determine the boundaries and limits of learning in the classroom so that students share common learning experiences that are sequenced and synchronized in order to compare, rate, and sort students according to their performance on a standardized test.

The terms rigor and grit are part of ed reformers narrative and rhetoric used to sell the Common Core Standards and convince parents that sterile, scripted, and data-driven instruction is superior to vigorous, customized, and passion-driven learning that is not controlled and restrained by the format and design of a standardized test.

K-12 education programs that claim to prepare students for “college and careers” should cultivate a wide array of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies that are useful and transferable life skills rather than focusing on a narrow set of numeracy and literacy skills that are measured by a standardized test.

It is far more important that students are free to learn in school and well educated, than subjecting them to continuous testing to determine if they have been educated well.

Today many schools are eliminating vigorous extracurricular experiences that help students discover the ways they are “smart”, so they can devote more time to preparing students for rigorous standardized tests so the state can measure and compare how “smart” they are.

Successful adults understand that their achievements are less about standardized test scores and the subjects they learned in school, and more about self-efficacy and knowing how to learn in life.