When I recently spoke to a group of high school juniors from East Tennessee about education reform, I asked a simple question: “How many of you have been consistently challenged academically throughout your schooling?” Not a single student raised her hand.

This is symptomatic of a trend we’ve seen across our state and nation: our current education system is not consistently pushing students to the higher levels of thinking necessary to succeed in college or career. Level of rigor affects the quality of textbooks, standardized tests, and classroom instruction. The Common Core State Standards attempt to address this issue head on. But how?

Rigor, like so many of the laudable concepts favored by educators (high expectations, achievement, relationships) is an abstract term difficult to define. Some argue that rigor and difficulty are not synonyms. Webster’s Dictionary defines rigor as “a harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment” or “a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.” While teenagers might argue that these definitions perfectly encapsulate classroom rigor, I have to scroll down before I arrive at a positive description: “strict precision: EXACTNESS.” This speaks to the notion of rigor as discourse: the way teachers and students communicate, through speaking or writing, when discussing instructional content.

Let’s examine how just one specific activity—argument—embodies this concept of rigorous discourse. Traditionally, in an English classroom I might teach a text that suggests a complex idea (such as Walden, in which Thoreau argues that the conveniences of modernity hinder a fulfilling life) and ask my students, “What do you think about Thoreau’s claim?” We would have a debate, or the students might write a persuasive speech.

Would that be a rigorous activity? According to Webster’s, not exactly. Sure, Walden is dense, and constructing a logical argument is no cinch. But my prompt also gives the clever student an easy out: by merely asking “What do you think?” I’ve allowed the student to respond based solely on personal ideology or bias. To argue “Thoreau is wrong because he’s an ornery crank” may make for compelling classroom theater, but it’s not precise.

How would the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts treat this activity? In 7th grade, Reading: Informational Text Standard #8 reads:

Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.

The standard requires students to evaluate an argument on its own merits: to examine the strength of an author’s claim and his ability to support that claim with relevant, sufficient evidence—the bedrock of sound reasoning. To accomplish this, a student must discern the structure of Thoreau’s argument and provide textual evidence to support her argument about his argument. Standard eight thus involves a sort of meta-argumentation: an argument about someone else’s argument. This type of thinking requires skills—abstraction, synthesis of ideas, and precision—that comprise educational rigor.

The notion of rigor as intellectual precision is embodied as well in the Common Core math standards, which place an emphasis on mathematical reasoning and fluency. The sixth Standard for Mathematical Practice expects students to “attend to precision” when communicating mathematical concepts and performing calculations.

The transition to new standards is an opportunity to scale what hard-working educators have known all along: a rigorous course of academic study benefits all students. When given the opportunity to grapple with meaningful, rigorous work, students will rise to the task.