Defining Rigor That Works

By Jean Sharp, Vice President of Content Development

How do we ensure our students are ready for the next step after high school? To answer this question, we must begin by defining the skills most essential in preparing today’s students for the next step after high school. We then need to teach these skills to our students through rigorous content that mirrors the kinds of tasks that students will be held accountable for.

At Apex Learning, it is our goal to provide students with rigorous content that requires them to demonstrate their knowledge and apply what they have learned so they are prepared for the next step in their education and beyond.

Essential Skills

To determine what skills are needed to ensure students succeed in life after high school, let’s turn to recent research conducted by the Hewlett Foundation. Their analysis of work conducted by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and early research on productive mindsets concluded that students will need the following skills to succeed:

  • Ability to think critically and solve novel and complex problems
  • Strong communication skills with diverse groups and across varied types of teams
  • Take active initiative in their own learning
  • Have confidence that they can meet their goals through hard work and persistence
  • Be well-balanced, with strong social and emotional skills

 

Student success in middle and high school, college, work, and life depends on students having meaningful learning experiences targeted towards these skills. In short, students need experiences and opportunities where more learning happens. Deeper learning experiences help build student capacity and confidence to successfully navigate the transitions and challenges in their future.

Rigorous Content

Rigorous digital curriculum designed to engage and motivate students can have a significant impact on ensuring our students are truly prepared for what comes next after high school. Let’s take a moment to put some definition around “rigor.” Among the definitions of rigor is the “use of demanding standards.”   Standards often define the level of depth and complexity that students should be able to achieve.  For example, a standard for English 11 asks students to: “Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.”

Standards driven curriculum takes the spirit and intent of the standard and builds the instructional sequence to support students as they step to the level of rigor required by the standard. Rigorous content has taken into account what the standard is asking students to know and do, and it ensures students are able to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Let’s walk this out in an example from Apex Learning’s English 11 course. The lesson centers on the standards CC11-12 RL5 and CC11-12 RL7 and is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s choices in structuring the classic Gothic work, “The Raven.”  The first study in this lesson introduces students to the characteristics of Gothic writing within the context of the Industrial Revolution and the Romanticism movement.

Within the lesson students learn to:

  • Connect the characteristics of the time-period with the characteristics of the literary genre
  • Gain an understanding of what is meant by a work’s aesthetic impact so that they’re prepared to identify and analyze it later on
  • Explore a brief survey of Gothic works in order to practice identifying the genre’s characteristics in specific texts

 

Students then complete a series of deep analysis activities that provide them an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. They are asked to explain how specific elements of the text contribute to its meaning, articulate the impact of Poe’s choices on structure and meaning, and evaluate two recorded interpretations of the text to demonstrate their understanding of Poe’s intentions.

Apex Learning Lesson Sequence Example

 

Course:

 

ELA 11, Sem 1 Unit 2 Lesson 2

 

Standards:

 

CC11-12 Reading Literature 5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

CC11-12 Reading Literature 7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

 

Context:

 

This lesson from Semester 1 of 11th grade English (American Literature) comes in a Unit of Romanticism and Transcendentalism. It follows a Unit centered on founding documents of the United States of America, and precedes Units on the American Narrative and Modernism and the American Dream.

 

Lesson Sequence:

 

The first study in this lesson (2.2.2) introduces the characteristics of Gothic writing within the context of the Industrial Revolution and the Romanticism movement. Students begin to connect the characteristics of the time-period with the characteristics of the literary genre, setting a foundation for later analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s choices in structuring the classic Gothic work, “The Raven.” Students also gain an understanding of what is meant by a work’s aesthetic impact, so that they’re prepared to identify and analyze it later on. Finally, students explore a brief survey of Gothic works in order to practice identifying the genre’s characteristics in specific texts. 

The anchor reading (2.2.4) includes both “The Raven” and Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition,” the latter of which provides yet more foundation for the analysis students will ultimately conduct on “The Raven.”

In the analysis study (2.2.6), students apply what they’ve learned about the Gothic genre and the historical and literary context of Poe’s time-period to a deep analysis of “The Raven.” From simple interactivities that confirm student recollection of the basic structure of the text, to multi-step activities that require students to explain how specific elements of the text contribute to its meaning, to deep analysis activities that push students to determine the impact of Poe’s choices on structure and meaning, the instruction increasingly supports students’ ability to independently achieve what standard RL5 requires.

Finally, once students have fully grasped the context, meaning, and aesthetic impact of the text, they are prepared to evaluate two recorded interpretations of it—specifically, how well each interpretation aligns with Poe’s intentions.

 

Achieving Results

Efficacy data from districts across the country proves that using effective, rigorous digital curriculum produces results…graduation rates rise, dropout rates decrease and students are prepared for the next step. Students not only earn credits required on their path toward graduation but are better prepared to pass end of course and other high stakes exams.

Rigorous curriculum prepares students for next steps—the next course, the next high-stakes test and the next stage in their education or life.