Cassandra Erkens is a presenter, facilitator, coach, trainer of trainers, keynote speaker, author, and above all, a teacher. She presents nationally and internationally on assessment, instruction, school improvement, and professional learning communities.

Achievement – Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor (Post 3 of 4 on Using Assessment to Improve Achievement)

Author’s note: In the spring of last school year, I offered 2 posts from a 4 part series on using assessments to increase achievement. The first was in regards to defining ‘learning’ beyond numerical indicators and the second was on holding high expectations for all learners. The third and fourth posts will be offered this fall.

“A perfection of means and a confusion of aims seems to be our main problem.”



As we raise the bar on our expectations that all learners can be successful, we must also raise the bar on rigor for all learners. All learners must be successful at higher levels than they have in the past if they are to meet the demands of career and college readiness.

When trying to meet the demands of supporting all learners, it is impossible to increase rigor without also attending to relationships and relevance. The triplets – rigor, relevance, and relationships – need to be addressed simultaneously in order to maximize their individual capacity to propel learning forward.



Relationships matter greatly. Marzano (2011) notes: “Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction” (p.82). Simply having positive relationships with students and colleagues will not increase achievement (though it is certainly a step in the right direction!). Quality teacher to student relationships impact student achievement in 4 significant ways:

  1. When teachers build trust and rapport with students, students are more likely to take the necessary risks required to learn at deep levels. As mistake making is an inherent part of the learning journey, students need to feel safe along the way.
  2. When students feel safe, they are more likely to offer teachers the necessary insights and feedback that can support the teacher’s ability to respond appropriately.
  3. When teachers strive to understand each learner’s DNA (desires, needs, and assets), they have the necessary ‘intel’ to connect the learning in targeted, scaffolded, and specific ways that ensure the learner can be successful. And, finally,
  4. When teachers know their students well, they can better interpret the meaning behind a student’s unconscious nonverbal responses to the learning at hand. Raised eye-brows, tapped pencils, and deep sighs represent different emotional responses based on the learner exhibiting the behavior.

Unless a teacher knows the students well, it is challenging to make learning relevant or rigorous.



Relevance is a measure of connectedness based on pertinence, interest, value, need, and/or immediacy of a given context. In other words, the assessment matters to the learners who will be asked to engage in it. Relevance is critical. Teachers will have a difficult time increasing rigor for learners who do not find the tasks at hand very relevant.

Like rigor, there are degrees of relevance. Something is less relevant if it is an isolated experience and far more relevant if it offers knowledge and skills to support life-long endeavors. Relevance is also contextual. Studying the setting of a story will seem less relevant to a student who hates reading literature than it will to a student who aspires to be a novelist. Fortunately, teachers can increase the relevance for everyone by helping learners find personal value in the studied content or skills. For example, disinterested readers can understand that their entire lives are defined by their personal settings. They can then begin to explore the variables within their own control to alter their settings for the better, making setting a relevant concept to explore beyond literary options. When content (e.g. literature) is used as a medium (not the end goal) to explore critical, real world skills, then relevance is maximized.

The 4 levels of relevance that are identified in the following figure are modified from the action continuum of Willard Daggett’s Rigor and Relevance Framework (2005).


Relevance Levels


a measure of connectedness based on pertinence, interest, value, need, and/or immediacy

1.     Level 1—Apply in isolation and within discipline: Items focus on the specific discipline in which concepts and skills are taught.

2.     Level 2—Apply in multi-standard or cross -discipline: Tasks blend with knowledge and skills from other standards and/or disciplines.

3.     Level 3—Apply in authentic, structured challenges: Tasks are structured for predictable or calculable products that mirror processes beyond school walls.

4.     Level 4—Apply in authentic, ill-structured challenges: Tasks are complex problems requiring real solutions with no predictable outcome.



When considering relevance, teachers must explore the following questions:

  • Are the questions, prompts, or tasks interesting for the learners? Consider age, region, and modern trends as variables.
  • Might the questions, prompts, or tasks unintentionally exclude some learners (e.g. those who aren’t interested in sports, those who don’t have access to gardens, those who don’t wish to become historians, etc.)?
  • Do the questions, prompts, or tasks replicate processes that are authentic to ‘real world’ applications?
  • Will the questions, prompts, or tasks be fun or engaging? Will they be explained in the context of life-long application?

Like relationships, relevance is a precursor to increasing rigor. Few learners will accept robust challenges if they 1) don’t believe someone is there to support their efforts, and 2) can’t find a worthy reason to engage in something that will not be easy.


Rigor is defined as a balance of conceptual understanding and procedural fluency during an application-based experience, especially in an unfamiliar context. In other words, rigor is low when learners are asked to describe the setting of a story they have read and already defined in class (recall level work). Rigor is increased when learners are asked to use the characteristics of time and place to identify the setting of a story (with limited coaching or support) in a familiar story (application). It is far more rigorous to have learners independently identify and describe the story elements (includes setting) of an unfamiliar passage (strategic thinking). An assessment experience will fall short of its intended goal if it does not elicit the appropriate levels of reasoning.

The framework for rigor that is most frequently used to evaluate assessments is the Depth of Knowledge (DOK) framework by Webb (2005). The DOK framework has 4 levels as outlined in the following table.


DOK Levels


a balance of conceptual understanding and procedural fluency in application

Depth of Knowledge Framework:

1.     Level 1—Recall: Recall a fact, information, or procedure

2.     Level 2—Skill/concept: Use information or conceptual knowledge, two or more steps, and so on

3.     Level 3—Strategic thinking: Requires developing a plan or sequence of steps with some complexity and more than one possible answer

4.     Level 4—Extended thinking: Requires an investigation, and time to think and process multiple conditions of the problem

Webb, 2005


When considering rigor, teachers must explore the following questions:

  • Do the questions, prompts, or tasks match the intended levels of rigor required by the standard(s) being assessed?
  • Do the questions, prompts, or tasks build in complexity over time (easing the learner into rigorous work and assuring knowledge and skills are in place before assessing more sophisticated thinking)?
  • Do the questions, prompts, or tasks require the learners to use knowledge and skills in authentic applications?

With the appropriate scaffolding and support, all learners can engage in rigorous tasks or dialogue. Rigor is not something that is reserved for the upper grades. Likewise, it is not something that must always be developed sequentially (first teach level one, then level two, etc.). Thinking rigorously must be taught. Learners require practice and feedback on their ability to engage in strategic and extended thinking during instruction if they are to be able to engage in rigorous work on the assessments.


It’s one thing to have high expectations for all learners and quite another to make it happen. Given a realistic chance at success, all learners would choose it. All learners prefer to be successful, and if we are going to increase achievement for all learners, then we must improve the rigor and relevance of all of our assessments. And, we must build and maintain supportive relationships with all of our learners so they are willing to stay on the challenging path before them.



Dagget, W. R. (2005). Achieving academic excellence through rigor and relevance: Rigor/relevance framework. Rexford, NY: International Center for Leadership in Education. Accessed at on April 7, 2011.

Marzano, R. (2011). Relating to students: It’s what you do that counts. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 82-83.

Webb, N. L., Alt, M., Ely, R., & Vesperman, B. (2005, July). Webb alignment tool (WAT) training manual. Madison: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research.



  1. Peter Davis

    I really appreciate the holistic look at assessments and how the different components hinge and support each other. The way that you follow a concept with an example is VERY helpful. Thank you!


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