Developing Well-Designed Standards-Based Units - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

July 1, 2021

Developing Well-Designed Standards-Based Units

A five-step framework takes the guesswork out of instructional planning.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Instructional Strategies
Illustration: A tangled black string smoothing out into a maze outline

Despite the best of intentions on the part of overworked and undertrained classroom teachers, instructional planning can too often be described as idiosyncratic, haphazard, and lacking any logically or pedagogically defensible structure. What passes for planning often involves some version of: (1) thinking about the next day's lesson based on what is suggested by the next section in the textbook, under the unquestioned belief that if what is in the textbook is "covered," important state standards will be addressed; (2) creating formative assessment tasks on the spot each day; and (3) coming up with a summative assessment the night before it is to be administered.

What is missing from this approach is a unifying planning framework that ensures alignment between stated curriculum, taught curriculum, and assessed curriculum. A sound structure that guides teams of teachers in developing tightly aligned units of instruction, before the first lesson of the unit is taught, has the potential to significantly improve student performance (Westerberg, 2016). A standards-based learning planning framework, encompassing the five steps below and field-tested in my work with schools across the country, provides such a structure.

Step 1. Identify Priority Standards for Grade-Level Subjects and Courses

Simply put, it is unrealistic to expect teachers to design units of instruction that promote deep learning around every listed academic content standard. There just isn't enough time. Effective unit planning begins with identifying a limited number of overarching or enduring standards and moving from what Douglas Reeves calls "fragmentation to focus" (Reeves, 2021). Criteria for identifying priority standards are well-established in the professional literature (see Marzano, 2006; Heflebower, Hoegh, & Warrick, 2014).

Step 2. Identify Existing Units of Instruction that Address One (or More) Priority Standard(s)

Although there are exceptions, it is my experience that teachers traditionally organize instruction by topical units; for example, you might have "Solids, Liquids, and Gases" in a 2nd grade science class or "Reconstruction" in a high school U.S. history course. These units may range from several days to several weeks in length and are a useful way to "chunk" learning.

It is now expected in every state that instructional units be based on identified subject and grade-level or course standards. It is not always necessary, however, to develop new units from scratch. To honor teachers' prior work, teams can examine existing units of instruction to see where priority standards are already addressed or to pinpoint units which can be redesigned to include them.

Step 3. Create a Proficiency Scale for Each Standard in Each Unit

Essential to effective unit planning, assessment, and instruction—whether for in-person or virtual learning—is identifying, clearly and specifically, what students must show the teacher they know and can do in order to meet a particular level of proficiency for a given standard. Marzano (2006) recommends what is in effect a five-point scale (0–4) with proficiency levels of below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. An example of a proficiency scale can be found in Marzano and Heflebower's 2011 Educational Leadership article "Grades That Show What Students Know."

The success criteria listed next to each proficiency level take the guesswork out of what is expected for students and help guard against implicit bias on the part of teachers. For instance, for the topic "Animal and Plant Survival" noted in Figure 2 of the article just mentioned, students must, among other things, (1) "recall specific terminology related to the topic, such as plant, animal, and survival" to be certified at the basic level, (2) "describe and give examples of what plants and animals need to survive" to be certified as proficient, and (3) "compare and contrast the different ways plants and animals breathe and find nourishment" to be considered advanced. Success criteria identify the work for students (and parents) and direct the development of assessment tasks and instructional strategies by teachers (see steps 4 and 5).

Step 4. Design Assessment Tasks Tied to Each Unit's Proficiency Scale(s)

Perhaps the strongest feature of this unit planning framework, in addition to that of providing clear expectations for student performance, is the tight alignment the structure demands between the stated curriculum (as outlined in unit priority standards and proficiency scales), the taught curriculum (instructional tasks, assignments, and resources), and the assessed curriculum (summative and formative assessment tasks).

Why not support teachers by introducing structure to the lesson-planning process?

The standards-based learning planning framework does not limit the types of summative and formative assessment tasks that teachers can design—quizzes, tests, performances, projects, labs, structured observations, and oral examinations can all be valid and reliable assessment strategies.

What the planning structure does do is provide focus by tying each assessment task to one or more of the success criteria in the unit's proficiency scale(s). Particularly with regard to summative assessment, there should be no assessment task that cannot be linked directly to one or more unit success criterion, and there should be no unit success criterion for which there isn't at least one (preferably more) assessment task. In other words, valid and reliable assessment tasks should be incorporated for every unit success criterion, nothing more and nothing less.

Summative assessment tasks should be developed first, as they will then guide the development of appropriate formative tasks. Formative assessments, like summative assessments, are planned in advance of teaching the unit and are tied to key junctures in the learning progression for the targeted topic or standard—points at which students must show some level of mastery of key content and skills in order to be successful at the next stage in the progression. Checks for understanding, employed on an almost daily basis and not necessarily developed prior to the start of a unit, augment less frequent planned formative assessments.

Step 5. Identify "High-Probability" Instructional Tasks and Assignments Tied to Each Unit's Proficiency Scale(s)

The last step in the unit planning process is to identify how the unit will be taught—what instructional strategies, assignments, and resources will be deployed to best enable all students to reach the unit priority standards as defined in the corresponding unit proficiency scales.

As is the case with assessment tasks, in-class and out-of-class strategies and assignments and the resources that support them must be tied directly to the success criteria listed in the unit proficiency scale(s). An instructional strategy or assignment that cannot be clearly tied to one or more unit success criterion, even if it is the teacher's favorite activity (six weeks of building Conestoga wagons in 5th grade, unrelated to any grade-level standard, is an example with which I am painfully familiar from my time as a principal), is time not well spent.

On the other hand, for the topic "Animal and Plant Survival," having students grow plants under different conditions (soil/no soil, water/no water, light/dark conditions, etc.) seems directly tied to the success criteria "describe and give examples of what plants and animals need to survive."

It is patently unfair to hold students accountable for something for which the teacher has provided no viable means of instruction. Every success criterion at every proficiency level for every unit proficiency scale needs corresponding planned instructional strategies. Alignment, alignment, alignment!

Beyond Haphazard Planning

Alternatives to idiosyncratic, haphazard, and unfocused instructional planning do exist. A standards-based learning unit planning process, briefly outlined here, is one such alternative with a research base to support it. Why not give teachers support by introducing structure to the lesson-planning process? Why not provide students with a transparent system of aligned curriculum, assessment, and instruction? Why not plan forward?

Reflect and Discuss

When planning units, how do you determine which standards to cover? How might you identify only those that are the most "overarching or enduring"?

What could you do to ensure that every assignment or task is tied to one or more unit success criterion?

What would need to change in your school or department for teachers to undertake standards-based unit planning as outlined in this article?


Heflebower, T., Hoegh, J. K., & Warrick, P. (2014). A school leader's guide to standards-based grading. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Marzano, R. J. (2006). Classroom assessment and grading that work. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Reeves, D. (2021). Five professional learning transformations for a post-COVID world. Educational Leadership, 78(5), 44–48.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.