The goal of this project was to develop units that demonstrate alignment as the key element in instruction and assessment. The purpose of this project was to provide educators with models that could be used for staff development in the development of aligned units of instruction as well as aligned instructional units for classroom use.
The Development Committee established these guiding principles:
  • Alignment is a key element in instruction and assessment.
  • Summative assessments [transfer tasks] would give evidence of understanding through application.
  • Essential questions would clarify each standard and would be an integral part of the alignment process within each unit.
  • Formative assessments would check for understanding and would align to the transfer task.
  • Content, concepts, themes, and topics from civics, economics, geography, and history would be presented through different media.
  • Twenty-first century skills would be an integral part of each unit.
  • Technology use would be integrated where appropriate in each unit.
  • Reading and writing skills would be part of the instructional strategies where appropriate.
  • Student learning would take place through a variety of instructional strategies that scaffold.
  • Instructional strategies would be based on research-based best practices in social studies.
These units model the backward design process of alignment of curriculum (national/state standards), instruction and assessment. Each unit contains the same components which are integral to a strong alignment to the standard [national/state]. Each of these components is integrally linked to the other components in the unit. These components in each unit are:
National Standards
All of the modules are aligned to national standards. They each have a primary focus on history, economics, geography, or government/civics. In addition, they may have a secondary focus on any of the other social sciences and related social studies skills as identified by national standards. However, only the primary standard(s) is listed here. National standards are broad statements of what is to be learned in social studies. Often they are further subdivided into specific outcomes and indicators for each grade level.
State and Local Standards
States have used the national standards to define the content and skills to be taught at the local level. These standards are often referred to as "accountability standards" because they form the basis of assessment at the state level. States should align to the state standards and list in this space the specific state standards that are aligned to this unit.
Essential Questions
Essential questions are derived from standards and go to the heart of the discipline. They ask "questions" about the big ideas and core concepts in the standards for the social studies content areas. Essential questions cross all grade levels and may call upon knowledge from the other social sciences and history. They are reached in each unit by the use of a variety of instructional strategies. The essential questions provide the focus for the strategies and the formative assessments within each lesson.
Essential Content
The essential content is the content needed to address the essential questions intelligently. No attempt is made to list all of the content that could be taught in the unit; however, a core of knowledge is given for the essential questions.
Twenty-first Century Skills
A wide variety of skills are activated in any given unit. The skills listed are those for which there are specifically designed instructional strategies. Integrating 21st century skills into the unit makes the lessons more relevant to the challenges of contemporary life. There are also connections to skills in other content areas. For example, reading and writing in the social studies is a recurring focus throughout the units.
Summative Assessment
The summative assessment is a transfer task and asks the students to apply what they have learned in the unit to an authentic situation. The task is designed to give evidence of student understanding of one or more of the essential questions and provides the student with the opportunity to do higher level thinking. In a summative assessment students demonstrate performance in a variety of ways. They may demonstrate understanding by writing or speaking, or they may create a product to demonstrate understanding. The summative assessment is scored by a rubric reflective of higher order thinking and allows for feedback on how well the information and thinking were presented.
Instructional Strategies
In order to maintain the alignment within the unit, each lesson is aligned to one or more of the essential questions. Knowledge and skills gained by students in the strategies within each lesson contribute to an understanding of the essential question(s) for that lesson. The strategies of each lesson scaffold: gathering information, extending and refining meaning, and application. The goal is to move students from the more concrete levels of thinking to the more abstract [higher levels of thinking] required by the summative assessment. Instructional strategies are focused by the both the essential questions and the summative assessment.
Formative Assessments
For most strategies, formative assessments [checks for understanding] are included to encourage teachers to provide feedback to students on a regular basis. These assessment items are not inclusive and are only suggestive in terms of levels of thinking and the variety of items that can be used to provide immediate feedback to students. These assessments should provide some indication to the teacher of how well students are progressing towards an understanding of the essential questions.
Best Practices
Best Practices ties the suggested strategies to research. Wherever possible a link is provided for the teacher to learn more about the suggested strategy and to provide the research basis for the strategy. This link may also provide the teacher with a contact for additional information and links to other websites.