Beckham: what does academic rigor mean at Scottsdale Schools?

The Scottsdale Unified School District has a long history of success with a solid reputation for quality teachers and bright students.

Allyson Beckham

However, a pattern of reduced test scores and lower graduation rates over the last 10 years highlight a need to refocus on student learning. To reverse this downward trend, the district is increasing rigor in the classroom.

At first, rigor can seem like an abstract solution. What does it really mean — for the teacher and for the student? How will it improve test scores and graduation rates?

Schools are dynamic and constantly evolving, and student learning should be too. That’s why rigor is so effective: it creates an environment in which all students are expected to learn at a high level, and the instruction and learning experiences are adjusted to ensure students reach those levels.

Rigor is often confused with difficulty, but the focus of rigor is on the “how,” not the “what.” While reading Shakespeare would be difficult for a third grader, it is not necessarily rigorous. That is why SUSD is not changing the curriculum, but instead changing how it is presented and raising the expectations for student achievement.

What does rigor mean for teachers?

An attentive, conscientious, and diligent approach will become the new normal in the classroom. First and foremost, teachers will raise expectations for their students. Once students understand the new expectations, the assignments and projects in class will help them think more critically and reach those standards.

Teachers will facilitate collaborative group projects and discussions, assign homework that improves written and oral communication skills, and implement deadlines that hold students accountable.

What does rigor mean for students?

Students will apply rigor to their assignments: higher expectations will require more diligence to master the material in the course. Students will learn what it means to tap into their full potential and creativity by working with their peers to think critically about problems and present their solutions. Participating in the classroom will be expected of all students to excel.

How will this improve test scores and graduation rates?

By understanding the curriculum more deeply, and thinking about its applications beyond memorizing formulas, students will recognize their abilities and potential and have a stronger desire to succeed. They will develop newfound curiosities that lead to learning beyond homework.

The AZ Merit test and district assessments have been adjusted to match these expected skills and prepare students to succeed in the 21st Century economy. SUSD also is purchasing ACT Aspire to identify learning levels in 8th grade, and ACT to help prepare 11th graders for higher education.

To further implement rigor, SUSD principals will strengthen their instructional skills and become responsible for teacher training and development on their campuses. School leadership will work closely with teachers to meet measurable district and student goals. SUSD counselors also will receive training to help them guide students to take classes that are challenging and appropriate.

Two immediate ways parents and students will see rigor is through summer projects and changes to the first day of school. SUSD schools have implemented summer reading to mitigate “summer brain drain.”

Additionally, students should expect to start learning the curriculum on day one, August 7. So if you are an SUSD parent, make sure to ask your children at dinner what they learned on their first day of school this August.

My hope as a Governing Board member is that rigor will create a renewed respect between teachers and students — as they are both working toward the same goal of improved student achievement. SUSD students should graduate with greater cognitive thinking, improved written and oral communication skills, and an enthusiasm for learning for the rest their lives.

Editor’s note: Ms. Beckham is a member of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board

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