Balancing High Academic Standards and Student Wellbeing at SRS

Balancing High Academic Standards and Student Wellbeing at SRS
Rob Lamb, Director of College Counseling


How do you define academic rigor? Is it merely a matter of challenging courses, heavy workloads, and evenly spaced bell curves of grade distribution? How much challenge is enough? How do you balance difficult classes with extra-curriculars? Is taking more than three AP courses in junior and senior year, aiming to meet the highest academic standards at Sage Ridge, compatible with fostering student wellbeing? How many AP courses, community service hours, and accolades does a high performing high school student need now to get into Harvard or Stanford given that their acceptance rates are around 3%? These and related vexing questions will be addressed in the following article with a focus on perceptions and definitions of rigor in schools and the need for high academic standards in the pursuit of excellence and SRS Pillar-worthy character. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently published several articles on the subject of academic rigor in colleges and universities, with particular attention paid to the effects of lower academic standards–both intellectually and logistically–during and after the pandemic. According to Becky Supiano, a senior writer for The Chronicle, "an intellectually difficult course...challenges students’ assumptions, spurs their motivation, requires their effort, increases their skills. Intellectually difficult courses push students to learn. A logistically difficult course has strict policies about when and how work is produced and evaluated. During the pandemic, many professors [and K-12 teachers] sought to decrease the logistical demands they put on students, relaxing their policies about how work was produced and when it was handed in. This was intended to make students’ lives easier, and probably it did” (see The Redefinition of Rigor, March 2022, for the full article). Yet many teachers, including some I recently surveyed at SRS on this topic, have reported that students learned less or produced weaker work during the pandemic and may still have less stamina for more and harder work than they used to.

Interestingly, when Covid-19 shuttered schools the logistical challenges to in-person learning fueled innovative leaps in virtual platforms for education, yet instructors’ reduced expectations for high grades, learning outcomes, and content knowledge/comprehension seems to have triggered a post-pandemic decline both in learning standards and in mental health across grade levels and post-secondary tiers. How, then, do we refine our definition of rigor now in this post-pandemic era? How should college prep/secondary school teachers challenge their students? What’s this debate really about? 

Some education researchers have noted that lowering standards sends the wrong message to students that they are not capable of completing difficult assignments. Jamiella Brooks, an associate director in the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania, and Julie McGurk, director of faculty teaching initiatives at Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, are working to reframe the "rigor wars" using three core principles: 

  1. Rigor, when defined apart from a deficit ideology, is necessary to teach more inclusively; 

  2. Inadequate definitions of rigor produce poorer learning outcomes, particularly for underrepresented and/or underserved students; 

  3. Rigor is not hard for the sake of being hard; it is purposeful and transparent. 

As noted by Supiano in Teaching: A Different Way of Thinking About Rigor, “When professors lower standards it communicates that they don’t believe students are capable of doing the work — and the students might believe it. That, of course, can hinder their learning. Rigor, [Brooks and McGurk] think, is context-specific, related to both the material being taught and the students taking a particular course.” 

Naturally, not all courses or grades committed to students’ work in them are created equal. And students know which teachers are hard graders and which give out more easy A’s, which teachers assign light homework loads and which pile on reading and writing assignments. This is true at every grade level and in college and graduate school as well. While undergraduate student workloads vary by institution and college major, Fred Rugg’s Recommendations of Colleges, a ratings guide to colleges/universities by major, also includes Thirty Seminar Sheets, now in its 24th edition, with one sheet on “Rigor Ranking” of colleges/universities (see roster below):

I sometimes refer to this resource and related materials on rigor when advising students to consider how much time they plan to spend in the library at their dream school if it’s on the list above. And yet, there is an important caveat here: a simplistic definition of rigor would equate piles of work with harder/more rigorous classes. And rigor reduced to grades would emphasize a perfectly balanced bell curve of assessment results over student engagement/interest, which also matter greatly in the net results of learning.

So, what are the key indicators of rigor? To answer this question with local context I asked Sage Ridge teachers for their input in a survey on the subject. Here’s how some of them responded: The key indicators of rigor are: “Complexity of assignment, amount of work required to complete the assignment, skills drawn upon.” “I review average scores for assignments and cumulative grades for all subjects. I monitor student progress and their work ethics. I can tell if my subject matter has rigor if a bright student is putting in effort and it’s challenging for them. I also know I’ll need to scaffold instruction for my lower achieving students.” “Indicators of rigor in my class are the questions students ask about the topic or their work. Rigor is the interest students show when working.” “Some indicators are the quality of their work and the learning progress, but also their grades.”

Given that most professors and teachers care about both students’ wellbeing and high academic standards for their courses, are rigor and compassion at odds? “No,” responded one teacher, “rigor need not be one-size-fits all… I want my classes to be more rigorous, but that does not mean more toil. Rigor to me means more learning, more thought, more challenging questions, more challenging of assumptions, more synthesis of material learned both within the class and within other classes, and more engagement.” “If students receive a 69% or lower they are allowed to retake the test but cannot receive higher than a 70% for their final grade. I believe this is fair for all the students and allows no one to fail if they put some effort into their work.” “Student voice and choice is involved in the balance of rigor and well being. Providing clear guidelines with benchmarks for feedback are also integral. Flexibility with due dates might also help.” “I value every student regardless of their capacity or dedication to the class; I pay attention to all of them and try to provide support and help to everyone.” “I want my students to improve their skills and understanding in my course. I want them to stretch their view and implement feedback. I can see student growth when they improve from one assignment to the next.”

Given this nuanced feedback from a handful of teachers at one college prep school, a single definition of rigor seems counterproductive to moving the conversation forward. That said, holding students accountable for their work and setting achievement bars high in grade school and beyond goes hand-in-hand with showing them that teachers truly care about their work and development as lifelong learners. Inflated grades and lower standards send the wrong message and I have heard from many students over the years who are less motivated by teachers who do not challenge them. Even some of the strongest students lack the drive to succeed when teachers do not challenge them to put in their best effort and thinking, which I have observed anecdotally in feedback from students preparing for their AP exams.

While AP exam results do not tell the whole story of academic rigor at any school, they can provide useful outcome metrics and a window into academic progress and potential, a limited type of rigor litmus test, if you will. Below is a summary of AP exam results at SRS from the last five years which illustrates that our students are being challenged in some of the hardest classes at Sage Ridge and meeting these challenges with very high pass rates on their AP exams. That said, Advanced Placement courses are essentially survey classes in given subjects (like Psychology or Biology 101 in colleges) and, as such, should be viewed as a starting point for deeper intellectual explorations and not the terminus points of inquiry for students and pedagogy for teachers. As some veteran teachers at Sage Ridge have noted, “APs aren't the horizon for us. We prepare students for the AP, but we don't teach to the test.” 

On an important side note, the recent mass shift to test-optional admission raises related questions about how colleges may utilize Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exam results. Many college counselors and, by extension, a growing number of parents and students across the country are now wondering if AP/IB scores are becoming a test-optional “Trojan Horse” for applicants who want to showcase their subject mastery in humanities/STEM, whether or not they missed the mark on their ACT/SAT. If your ACT/SAT score is not in the mid-50% range of admitted students at College X, it may be best to present high AP/IB scores instead. If you were a college admissions officer at a test-optional (or more likely test-preferred) institution, wouldn’t you want to review as much information about your applicants’ academic achievements and promise as possible to make sound, data-driven decisions? Putting this into context with specific institutional practices and priorities, “good” scores are relative and grade inflation at colleges and universities continues to rise, as noted in the slides below.

Although the new test-optional era may produce an AP/IB “arms race” and more confusion about which colleges prefer to see applicants ACT/SAT scores and which do not, I typically discourage students from taking these tests more than two or three times, chasing optimal scores for their applications but sometimes with fewer gains than expected. I do encourage students to take these tests at least once to see how they do and perhaps improve their scores utilizing proven test prep services offered by Khan Academy (for free) or Compass Education Group (at a 30% discount for Sage Ridge students). In addition, and beyond test scores, there are other creative ways to round out robust college applications, like conducting scholarly research through mentored projects with Polygence, for example, which I will review in upcoming Spotlight articles as well.

Furthermore, and to the point of balancing academic rigor with student wellbeing, starting in 9th grade in Freshman Seminar I remind students of key principles affirmed by a non-profit group called The Education Conservancy: “An admission decision, test score, or GPA is not a measure of your self-worth. And, most students are admitted to colleges they want to attend.” Here are some curated guidelines for students to help them stay grounded in their journeys through the college admissions process:

  • Be confident! Take responsibility for your college admission process. The more you do for yourself, the better the results will be. 

  • Be deliberate! Applying to college involves thoughtful research to determine distinctions among colleges, as well as careful self-examination to identify your interests, learning style and other criteria. Plan to make well-considered applications to the most suitable colleges. This is often referred to as “making good matches.” 

  • Be open-minded! Resist the notion that there is one perfect college. Great education happens in many places. 

  • Use a variety of resources for gathering information. Seek advice from those people who know you, care about you, and are willing to help. 

  • Be honest; be yourself! Do not try to game the system. 

  • Resist taking any standardized test numerous times (twice is usually sufficient). 

  • Know that what you do in college is a better predictor of future success and happiness than where you go to college.

The last point above reminds me of the title of an apt book by Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, in which he encourages college applicants to find good matches in schools that will give them the tools to be successful. To that end, I would encourage parents to review The Education Conservancy’s parent guidelines in the same materials and, along with your student, to cultivate a growth mindset about learning (in and out of school) and the college admission process as well. 

Finally, and for more on the growth mindset, here is a summary about it from the Harvard Business Review article by Carol Dweck, What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means: “To briefly sum up the findings: Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning.” Colleges like Dartmouth have also adopted growth mindset messages to assist students in their transition to college life and adjusting to the rigors of Ivy League academics, as in this article on their Academic Skills Center Blog (see below for a handy infographic on it as well).