Standards-Based Grading in History: Vertical and Horizontal Alignment

The terms vertical and horizontal alignment are thrown around a lot when talking about curriculum. However, they are easier to talk about than achieve. Both are critical components of educational reform and movement towards standards-based teaching and grading.1 My experience with both public school systems and private international schools suggest that teachers, not just curriculum specialists, should engage with this process and unlock its potential for improving student learning. I firmly believe teachers should be a part of this process; not just to ensure their voices and experience is heard, but also because thinking about the bigger picture makes teachers more effective.

Curriculum is not an add-on task that occurs in meetings, over summers, or acts as a distraction from teaching and instruction. Curriculum is at the heart of teaching and teachers should own it and live it.

1. Prioritize Standards

Not every standard needs to be taught and assessed every year. Some standards should be taught in earlier grades as they build toward more complex processes. For example, 9th and 10th grade courses should prioritize research, source analysis, and historical significance. These are the foundations of higher level argumentation or synthesis skills in not just history but other social studies courses. Later courses can review these at the start of the year and then move on to more advanced skills and concepts. A strong prioritization creates more opportunities for depth and decreases re-teaching.

Differentiate between content standards that drive illustrative examples, essential questions, and enduring understandings and the skill standards that can be more easily assessed and spiraled using proficiency scales and standards-based grading. Both have a place, and teachers should be able to explain the connections between them in each unit of instruction.

Consider “soft skills” not specifically aligned to history, geography, or other social sciences. These can be note-taking, presentation skills, debate, collaboration, discussion skills, etc. How will these be taught and spiraled throughout a curriculum? A clear and established progression offers tremendous benefits to building student capacities.

The image above is a sample prioritization document. Yellow denotes standards that are taught but not assessed, while green represents those both taught and assessed. All of these standards relate to working with different types of sources. Within each course, there was further thought on how they should be prioritized within and across units.

2. Unpack Standards

Many skill standards are written based on grade level bands; The C3 Framework does this for example “by the end of grade 8” or “by the end of grade 12.” Many of these standards will be taught across different grade levels. However, the standard itself offers no breakdown of how this skill looks different in 9th grade as opposed to 10th grade. Teachers need to unpack the standard and clarify the learning progression of each standard.

With some standards this is easier. A geography standard may only be taught in a single year, so the unpacking process will occur within the course instead of across multiple courses. A history standard may be covered in both 9th and 10th grade courses, so teachers need to consider what increased rigor or extension will be added in 10th grade.

Teachers need to be the ones to work through this process. From my own experience, this was one of the best professional development experiences of my career, as it forced me to reflect deeply on both assessment and instruction. Below are some examples of vertical alignment documents. Having these helps integrate new teachers and build a strong curriculum that is systems dependent instead of personnel dependent.

3. Write Proficiency Scales

Unpacking standards across grade levels help make the writing of proficiency scales much easier. The grade level below the target can provide some of the foundational skills that belong in the Score 2.0 section, and the grade level above provides possibilities for Score 4.0 enrichment.

A proficiency scale helps teachers reflect on the process by which they will instruct the standard. This will inevitably lead to scaffolding of both instruction and assessments. Even if the student never sees the proficiency scale, even if a school uses a traditional grading system, the student will be better served by having a teacher that has reflected on skill progression.

Check out my posts that contain proficiency scales for C3 standards in History and Geography.

4. Norm Student Work with Tuning Protocols

Norming student work is particularly important in the first year of using proficiency scales. The nature of language is that we can interpret it differently, meaning proficiency scales can be easily applied differently within the same school. Setting aside time for teachers to grade student work together and discuss scoring rationales helps a department fine-tune expectations and clarify the meanings of rubrics and proficiency scales. The discussions that arise will spark disagreement, but it will force teachers to reflect on their assessment practices and assumptions. This in turn helps teachers clarify expectations and scaffolds for students, even providing strong models and exemplars to guide growth. Some of the most valuable professional development is just focused and purposeful collaboration between teachers.

There are great norming and tuning protocols available on the internet. Check out this one from the National School Reform Faculty.3 This is one of my go to sources for education protocols.

5. Build Units with Alignment in Mind

Foundational standards should be prioritized in earlier units. More complex standards should be prioritized in later units. This seems simple enough, but is often ignored in the rush to do as much as possible.

Within units similar logic should apply. Standards that ask students to analyze primary sources should come first. As they master these alongside foundational content, they are better able to develop arguments around skills like causation or continuity and change over time. Likewise, research skills should be prioritized early in order to make larger projects possible later. No unit and no curriculum should be a scattershot of skills, content, and assessment styles. A unit progression need not be perfect, but should be thoughtful.

I tried to this in my US History course. The scope and sequence lays out how the standards built on each other as units progressed. Over the first half of a unit, skills were introduced, taught, and assessed in isolation. By the second half of the unit these skills were being woven together into more complex and genuine assessment tasks.

By the end of the semester students were ready to conduct their own research around essential questions within inquiry units. In terms of assessment design, this means grouping standards together on larger tasks. However, grouping helps solves some of the logistics issues around standard weighting and multiple assessment opportunities that often plague standards-based grading systems.

The image above simplifies my unit design process. Skills are introduced individually alongside content. Each skill will have multiple formative and at least one summative assessment opportunities. By the end of the unit these skills are pulled together into a performance task. Aligning skills and content within a unit is not difficult, but takes some time and thought.


  1. Guskey, T. R. (Ed.) (2009). Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  2. C3 Framework
  3. National School Reform Faculty

Featured Image: Ikon Images/Josep Serra

Leave a Reply