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District 202 administrators defined the concept of rigor in a presentation to the School Board on Feb. 22. “Access to rigor” has been under discussion at Evanston Township High School for several years, particularly with the recent expansion of mixed-level classes.

“Rigor is more about quality than quantity. …[It] includes content, pedagogy and assessment,” according to the report presented by Laura Cooper, assistant Superintendent, and Peter Bavis, associate principal. “It is not a synonym for harder. … it is about the process of moving students to deeper levels of understanding and focusing on the quality of student work.”

The report provided two definitions of rigor, school-wide and classroom-specific.

School-wide definition of rigor

A school-wide definition of rigor at ETHS needs to address expectations, instruction, assessment and support, said the report. “ETHS’ school-wide definition of rigor: Creating a nurturing 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.”

“I have no problem with the [phrase] ‘nurturing environment’,” said Board member Deborah Graham. “I think the nurturing environment is good. I’m a little confused by the lack of the word ‘challenging.’”

“The intent is not to eliminate the concept of challenge,” responded Dr. Cooper. “The challenge question is one of the teacher knowing ‘who are my students…who gets this idea of a thesis…who needs to be pushed.’”

Classroom-specific definition of rigor

In the classroom, rigor is the depth to which a student is expected to reason, analyze, collaborate, write, synthesize and create.

Administrators reported that the 1 Humanities class, which is now predominantly a mixed-level class taught at the honors level, “provides insight into the importance of rigor, clarity of expectations and support.”

According to the report, a five-point trait rubric is being used to evaluate work done in the 1 Humanities classroom.

A five-point trait rubric takes several aspects of the work a student has done and rates it on a five-point scale according to the depth and quality of the response.

For example, one aspect of the work might be how well a student’s thesis answers the assigned question. The evaluation ranges from a low of “thesis shows no attempt to answer to question” (level 0) to a high of “thesis makes accurate and relevant connections to the question” (level 4) or “thesis accurately and originally answers the question, addressing the importance and complexity of the question” (level 5).

Students working toward honors credit can look to level five on the rubric for clear targets and expectations, according to the report. Students working toward regular credit can look to level four of the same rubric for guidance.

In addition to the rubric already being used in 1 Humanities, four five-point rubrics are in development for English and two are in use in social studies.

“As we know, the old model for mixed-level classes was ‘more.’ You do another paper, you read another book,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. “Now we make sure that all students have our best curriculum, and we look at the depth of understanding, the depth of the work.

“1 Humanities is a model for how we’re going to move this through the school,” Dr. Witherspoon concluded.

“It’s been a real point of frustration for students and absolute confusion for parents,” remarked board member Gretchen Livingston, referring to the prior model of mixed classes. “It’s created a lot of chaos in terms of expectations and how we operate. I’m glad to see that we appear to be making some movement, but I think we’ve got a long way to go — all the way up to senior year.”

Several Board members stressed the importance of communicating the new approach to parents and students.

“We need clarity and brevity so we can communicate [this information] to the community,” said Board member Mark Metz.

Board member Mary Wilkerson suggested that examples of “excellent work” be provided to parents and students.

“It is a sea change,” said Dr. Witherspoon, commenting on the changes presented. “It will really elevate the work that all of our students do. We will have to keep building this out as it keeps having a bigger and bigger impact on the school.”