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Aurora Institute

Building a Body of Learning Evidence: English Language Development in Adams County School District 50

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Alice Collins
Alice Collins

The following is based on an interview with Alice Collins, Director of English Language Development at Adams County School District 50, with a focus on their structures, approach, and insights for other schools, including a look at the challenges and opportunities.


Building up a body of evidence of learning about your students is at the heart of Adams 50’s approach to English language development. Director of English Language Development Alice Collins explained, “Teachers have to understand where learners are in their language acquisition, their content skill development, and what they need. The only way to do this is draw together as much data as possible.”

As their schools underwent rapid and massive diversification, Adams 50 turned to competency education as they realized that the traditional approach to education wasn’t going to work. The district is now 18 percent White, with Hispanic, African American, and Native American students making up 82 percent of the student body. It has the second highest percentage of English Learners in the state, with 45 percent of learners in the ELD program (and they aren’t a very big district, with 10,000 students). Spanish is the dominant other language with an additional thirty-one other languages represented in the district.

Adams 50 is an English immersion district with one elementary school offering a transitional Spanish-English bilingual track. Collins explained, “In competency education, teachers are constantly building their skills. Given the higher percentage of our learners in the ELD program, teachers are building their skills to provide quality instruction to students as they acquire English and master content standards. It doesn’t happen overnight – its part of our constant attention to building our capacity to meet the needs of our learners.” It’s starting to pay off – ELD elementary school learners are improving their reading skills, as shown on the TCAP assessments.

Collins attributes Adams 50’s success in strengthening their elementary schools to teachers leveling instruction. “Teachers now deliver personalized instruction targeted to where kids are rather than to the middle. Our teachers are aware of every learner and where they are in their learning. We can group learners as needed so that teachers are not trying to respond to as much variance in the classroom as before.”

In order to align the instruction and assessment, Adams 50 is integrating World-Class Instruction Design and Assessment (WIDA) standards for language acquisition, Colorado proficiency standards, and Common Core into a framework for use by teachers. For example, social studies teachers with 50 percent of the class ELD are using the WIDA standards along with the content standards in planning their units. They build vocabulary support and scaffolding into the instructional materials and assessments.

Educators use a number of different sources of data to build the body of evidence. As Colorado is member of the WIDA Consortium, Adams County School District 50 uses the WIDA-ACCESS Placement Test (W-APT) in the fall and the Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State (ACCESS) for English Learners in January. In addition, they use the TCAP test, Scantron, DIBLES and READ ACT Burst assessment to assess literacy and content skills. Of course, they also use teacher observation to enhance their understanding of how learners are progressing.

Advice for Other Districts

I asked Collins what are the three things districts and schools should pay attention to in developing their ELD program in a competency-based environment.

  1. Know your learners. It is critical that teachers honor the learners’ first culture. In addition to understanding where your learners are coming from, schools should take the time to build the cultural competency of teachers and administrators.
  2. Build the body of evidence. It takes careful attention to understand learners’ cognitive abilities when they are being assessed in the language they are acquiring. By working together to review the body of evidence, teachers can understand more thoroughly the ability levels of their learners and their areas of development. It also helps to guard against underestimating cognitive skills or, of equal concern, not identifying when a learning disability may be undermining progress.
  3. Grow your teachers. Teacher education never stops. When a school commits to “growing their teachers,” they are building in the capacity for teachers to continue to learn and to stay on the cutting edge of research. Think about it as the care and feeding of a highly skilled professional team of educators.

Challenges and Opportunities

In our discussion, Collins and I explored some of the challenges and opportunities for ELD in a competency-based environment.

  1. Expanding Deeper Learning with Academic Language: Collins pointed out that a big challenge for Adams 50 (and for the field in general) is for teachers to build the skills they need to help learners with limited English proficiency better understand academic language in order to improve access to deeper learning, especially when EL numbers are concentrated. She explained that helping learners reach Levels 4 and 5 in an English-dominant culture is the most difficult challenge, as it requires substantial background knowledge and exposure. She said, “We have to target more help to our Limited English Proficiency (LEP) learners to strengthen academic language, as it is an important element of taking education to the higher Depth of Knowledge and the corresponding Depth of Knowledge as defined by Webb. It makes a huge difference. When we move our LEP learners to Fluent English Proficiency, they consistently outperform our Native English Speakers (NES). So part of our continuous improvement is to ask, ‘How do we reduce the time students are in Limited English Proficiency designation?’”
  2. Bilingual Teachers in Short Supply: For monolingual students entering secondary school, Adams County School District 50 organizes newcomer groups, with one teacher delivering instruction. One of the developing issues is the need for more bilingual teachers (Spanish, in the case of District 50), as it is so difficult to understand where a learner is in their learning progression without being able to speak to them in their language. Collins, who studied Spanish in Guatemala as an adult, says that she and other Spanish-speaking staff do informal assessment in home language to determine where students are academically.
  3. Will Bilingual Ed Bring Greater Competencies: As we wrapped up our discussion, Collins and I reflected on whether schools might start to consider bilingual education as a better choice than English immersion, regardless of political views. She introduced me to research from Kathy Escamilla at University of Colorado-Boulder, who is providing insights into the different dynamics of learning under each approach. Evidence shows that learners acquire content skills quicker in their first language as they learn English language skills over a longer period of time. (There also is evidence that children in early child development programs benefit the most from dual language, as well as those in K-12.) If the approaches are equally effective, then wouldn’t it make sense to turn to bilingual approaches so learners will have two languages by the time they graduate, given that it’s one of the expectations for admissions into elite colleges?

Stay tuned for more on supporting EL students in competency-based environments. We’ll be interviewing other educators over the next few months to learn from their insights.