(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.



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

  1. Thanks for tagging me and inviting me to read, John. I guess my perspective is a bit different. It seems that you are situating rigor and grit inside of standards and standards inside of testing. I envision the relationship between all four quite differently, and I think it is important to, lest we become part of the problem.

    Standards help us define quality. They help us articulate our shared understandings of quality, so that they are more transparent and clear for learners. This is how they thrive.

    Rigor has much to do with navigating complexity in varied contexts. It’s about seeking and grappling with varied perspectives, synthesizing what’s learned from diverse sources and experiences, and dancing in shades of gray rather than hiding in black and white. When we cultivate rigor, we engage kids.

    Grit is a loaded word, particularly among those who understand the roots of Duckworth’s research, and I get that. Like anyone, I’d rather sink my energy into creating abundance for kids rather than coaching them to be gritty, but over time, I’ve learned that fostering grit empowers kids in ways that build confidence and contribute to abundance.

    A standardized test is one way for the field to measure performance against a standard in order to report in an efficient and (hopefully) timely way to stakeholders. It happens once a year. It’s not the greatest measure. I know we have a long way to go toward (as Jenn Borgioli always says) “measuring what matters” and doing it in far healthier ways.

    It troubles me when people situate standards, grit, and rigor inside of standardization and testing. We need to be careful here. When we do this, we start contaminating definitions and perspectives and practices too. This is what hurts kids…..more than testing or standardization, IMO.

    • A standardized test happens once a year? Angela, you are disconnected from the high-stakes testing madness that is going on. As far as grit, for many students in our “failing” schools, we need to do more than put up bulletin boards identifying them as BASIC, PROFICIENT or ADVANCED in our hallways. This is the current climate teachers work under-many unhealthy practices are rooted in the rigor, grit, “stakeholders”, “customers”, and their evaluations are based on the wrong markers for success and progress.

  2. So where did these new “standards” come from? Who wrote them? Did we not already have standards? Did we not already take tests yearly? Yep. Now we take them or are preparing to take them much of the time during the school day. The people who wrote them are not teachers, they are employees of the testing companies. Watch a video of Charlotte Iserbyt, she explains exactly where this idea of “reform” for education came from. She was there and experienced first hand what is happening with education. If you and others do not wake up soon, it will be too late.

  3. Thanks Angela, I strongly agree…

    “It troubles me when people situate standards, grit, and rigor inside of standardization and testing. We need to be careful here. When we do this, we start contaminating definitions and perspectives and practices too.”

    From my perspective standards serve as a framework and guide that generally dictate and define the boundaries and limits of learning in the classroom so that students share common learning experiences so we can compare, rate, and sort them using a standardized test.

    It has been my experience that rigor and grit are part of the ed reformers narrative and rhetoric that they use as selling points for the Common Core Standards.

    My post is a critique of this unhealthy “relationship” not an endorsement of it, and I believe most educators share my perspective.

    I also believe that VAM is a means to assure that teachers are compliant and support data-driven and test-centric models of standardized instruction rather than passion-driven and student-centered approaches to vigorous and customized learning that is not limited or restrained by the confines of a standardized test.

  4. I’m entertained by the assumptions made about my experiences and the judgments made about thoughts I was *invited* to share here. I don’t need to be spoken to with such disrespect, even if you disagree with me.

    In NYS, kids take a yearly standardized assessment in each content area. It’s too much. Yup. And? I’m actually not a fan of testing. At all. That said, teacher friends of mine just returned from Albany, where they contributed to the design of the ELA assessment.

    I think the Common Core is a far leaner and tighter set of standards than those we had previously, and my experiences have taught me that when people actually know how to implement standards in healthy ways–and far too few do– they serve kids very well. And when states that abandoned the Core brought teachers together to design standards, the ones they created were uh…..pretty similar.

    It’s important not to allow those who are doing destructive things with standards and testing to contort our healthy and powerful definitions of rigor and grit. Those words are being manipulated. I’m not willing to hand them over to people who are misusing them. We let go of words that matter when those on the dark side grab hold of them. I won’t. We need those words.

    Believe it or not, I have a good many friends who feel differently than I do. They know how to disagree respectfully though, and so do I. They don’t invite me into a conversation to “school” me and “wake me up.” You guys seem to know it all here, so I’m not certain why I was invited to jump into the convo. And now, I’ll leave you to it. 😉

    • Thanks for responding Angela, I also strongly agree with you about the importance of not letting education “experts” outside the classroom determine, define, and dictate what are good practices in the classroom and in the best interest of our students.

      I do believe (and I think you agree with me) that the coupling of CCSS with standardized tests and VAM-based teacher accountability policies have contributed to distorted and destructive instructional practices.

      Angela Duckworth’s informative TED Talk discusses the importance of cultivating student persistence and grit and she explains that this is achieved through purposeful learning activities the unleash and stimulate student passions.

      Unfortunately, I believe her research and findings regarding the importance of meaningful, challenging, and personally relevant learning experiences that cultivate self-efficacy has been misrepresented and misconstrued by reformers and ed leaders to justify a variety of developmentally inappropriate, harmful, and nonsensical instructonal practices and testing policies.

      Requiring learning disabled students to take grade level standardized tests while denying them test accommodations that allow them to equally “access” the text because we wish to test their reading comprehension skills and the ability to independently “dive in” and “struggle” with complex informational text is one example of a harmful practice and policy.

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