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

October 20, 2014 by
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.


Is Competency-Based Education Feasible Without a Guaranteed Viable Curriculum?

October 1, 2014 by

guaranteed and viableCompetency-based education has gathered much energy and momentum across the nation during the past year, evidenced by the increase in the research and policy forums addressing the subject. Accompanying the interest is a dawning realization that organizations cannot fully implement an authentic competency-based system under the auspices of the flawed paradigm that preceded it. Policy wonks are left scratching their heads, wondering how best to negotiate a middle ground between defects of the traditional model and the promise of a competency-based system (CBS). Unfortunately, there is no middle ground; just as there was no middle ground in moving from VHS to DVD, you just need to convert. (more…)

What’s New in Competency Education (September 5)

September 5, 2014 by

K12Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 7.22.41 AM

  • Karla Phillips, the State Policy Director of Competency Based Learning for the Foundation for Excellence in Education looks at Colorado’s graduation policy in Rethinking School. (more…)

Momentum is Building in Colorado

July 30, 2014 by
Colorado flag


Colorado took a big step last year by establishing state policy for a proficiency-based high school diploma. As the Colorado Education Initiative explained the policy, the new graduation guidelines “signal a move away from seat time and toward enabling students to advance based on mastery of Colorado Academic Standards; provide students with a menu of options to demonstrate mastery rather than a single exit exam; emphasize multiple pathways for students to engage in learning; and elevate the importance of next generation student outcomes.”

There are a lot of pieces starting to come together that suggest that Colorado may start catching up with the New England states:

  • State Leadership:  Colorado has formed a Competency-based Study Group to better understand the benefits and challenges of implementing competency education. The study group is being facilitated by Achieve. Members of the group will be visiting Lindsay Unified School District in CA and will have a daylong seminar with former state and district officials from Maine. It’s so important for state and district leaders to take the time to visit the competency-based districts and schools to help them understand the fundamental shifts of focusing on proficiency rather than time.
  • Expansion of Competency Education: In addition to Adams 50, one of the early innovators of competency education, Colorado Springs District 11 and Thompson School District are participating in an initiative to expand next generation learning, in partnership with the Colorado Department of Education and The Colorado Education Initiative  (CEI) and funded by Next Generation Learning Challenges. Each district will focus on two schools. Adams 50 has done an extraordinary job in elementary school and is getting results. They will focus on Westminster High School and Ranum Middle School as part of this effort. (See CW post about how high school transformation was constrained by lack of innovation on part of SIS provider.)
  • Intermediary Capacity: Intermediary organizations play a critical role in advancing new reforms, leadership development and the transfer of knowledge. Several support organizations based in CO have substantial capacity around competency education.  The Colorado Education Initiative (formerly CO Legacy Foundation) is now actively supporting competency education along with it’s other initiatives including health and wellness and STEM.  (Here is their description of competency education.) Colorado also is working with the Marzano Research Laboratory (MRL), which has incredible expertise around formative assessment, standards-based grading and a new effort on high reliability schools that includes competency education. MRL has recently acquired the Reinvent Schools Coalition, adding even more capacity. The Regional Education Lab – Central (run by MRL) also is building capacity around state policy issues to better serve its states — Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

If you know of other states that are building momentum, we’d love to hear the details. We want to make sure that we continue to support network building as more states convert to competency-based education systems.


Upcoming: Adams 50 Tells Their Story

April 21, 2014 by
dr. swanson

Adams 50 Superintendent Pamela Swanson

REL Central has organized a webinar Competency-Based Education Systems: One Colorado School District’s Experience at which leadership from Adams County School District 50, fondly known as Adams 50, will discuss their approach and lessons learned.

Dr. Oliver Grenham, Chief Academic Officer and Dr. Pamela Swanson, Superintendent will present the district’s instructional model for all learners (including instruction and assessment) and discuss particular concrete examples. The presenters will also discuss challenges and steps they have taken to address the challenges as they have strived to implement a competency-based system.

The webinar is May 14, 2014 from 1:00-3:00 pm MST. You can register here.

A Tale of Two States

April 9, 2014 by

taleoftwostates-mapI had a quick conversation with Sal Khan last month that really highlighted the importance of the questions, What do we think competency is? and How do we measure it?

The different ways we think about competency and what we want for our students is one of the underlying issues causing confusion in the field. It also has powerful implications for whether we are going to help students develop higher order/deeper learning skills.

If you think that competency education is completing a course of study on adaptive software (FYI – this doesn’t meet the field’s working definition) or getting a certain score on the SAT, you will make different design choices than if you think competency is being able to apply skills in new contexts.  Another way to think about this is using the knowledge taxonomies: If you think competency is at Level 2 Comprehension, the way you design your schools is really different than if you set it in general at Level 3 Analysis or Level 4 Knowledge Utilization. So if we are talking about proficiency-based diplomas and competency-based credits — How do we know when a student is competent?

This issue jumped out when I saw that New Mexico is implementing an Alternative Demonstration of Competency for students who can’t pass the high school exit exam. New Mexico is on a slow road (think snail) to personalized, blended, and competency education, so I was curious to know how the State was thinking about competency (click here for overview of policies).  Usually, I wouldn’t refer to exit exams within the realm of competency education because they have nothing to do with transparency of learning progressions, empowering students to own their own education, providing adequate supports and time, and making sure students reach proficiency each step of the way. My personal analysis is that high school graduation exit exams are policy hammers used by state government to get schools to do better by kids, but in fact, they knock kids down as they try to enter adulthood without a diploma.  In reading the details of the Alternative Demonstration of Competency, however, it sounded so much like Colorado’s new proficiency-based diploma policy and its emphasis on cut scores that I thought it best to highlight it here. Perhaps New Mexico is backing its way into competency education? (more…)

Competency Education in Colorado Takes a Giant Step Forward

June 28, 2013 by
CO State Board of Ed

CO State Board of Ed

Charlie Toulmin from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation sent me information about Colorado’s new high school graduation requirements. I’ve taken my time in writing about it as it is a forward thinking policy with a number of possible implications. For those of you thinking about state policy it’s worth taking a look as it a pushes forward while still leaving room for local control. Given that districts are responsible for schools in all states with the exception of Hawaii and where there has been state takeovers, the Colorado high school graduation policy highlights the balancing between state and local policy. It’s also a good policy study for Boards of Education who are thinking about what their next step might be beyond seat-time waivers.

I’ve highlighted a few elements of the policy, including development of a meaningful diploma, floor of competency, and new state roles.  As you read through this policy, I think you will find, as I did, that Colorado established a policy that allows districts to advance aggressively toward a competency-based system, but also allows others to continue to be time-based and credit-based in their structures.

What Does a Meaningful Diploma Mean?  The purpose of the GGC was to establish a minimum expectation for a meaningful diploma. In doing so, they considered multiple perspectives:

  • alignment with the description of postsecondary and workforce readiness;
  • alignment with the postsecondary academic admission standards for public four-year institutions;
  • recognition of multiple and diverse pathways to a diploma;
  • articulation through a standards-based education system;
  • attainment of skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century; and
  • importance of academic and career  planning.

It would be interesting to see what considerations other states might use to decide what “meaningful” means. In New Mexico, we might consider lifelong learning. Other states with lower voter participation rates might want to consider civic participation.

Setting the Floor of Competency: The policy sets Colorado’s minimum College and Career Ready Determinations for English, mathematics, science, and social studies at proficiency levels on the state assessments, higher education cut scores for placement in credit bearing classes, industry certificates, and the military’s cut scores for academic consideration for preferred career training. Students must demonstrate proficiency in each academic discipline in at least one of the assessments.

So how does a district know that a student is competent? The policy goes on to list a menu of assessments and cut scores including SAT, ACT, state assessment, AP, IB, verified district capstone, concurrent college course, the military ASVAB, or industry certificate. (See the end of the post for the menu of assessments and cut scores). (more…)

Site Visit Takeaways

May 22, 2013 by

logoAs you may know, ACHIEVE has established a Competency-Based Pathways Work Group to examine how competency education may impact assessment, accountability, graduation requirements, and other state policies.  Working with leaders from ten states, Cory Curl and Anne Bowles are providing tools, research, and analysis so that state policymakers can assess opportunities to support competency education.

Cory and Anne have just completed site visits to Maine, Kentucky, Illinois, and Colorado, and shared their findings during a webinar (inspiring me to think about sharing insights that way rather than the blog….Hmm, what do you think?) Given that others had visited as well, we shared our insights. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Danville, Kentucky has been getting attention for their project-based learning  (See the show on PBS.) They see the ACT as a meaningful metric for determining college and career readiness and are moving toward improving ACT scores based on the college ready benchmarks.  Their website explains, “Students are considered to be college-ready by meeting specific benchmark scores for each content-area tested by the ACT. EXPLORE and PLAN also provide benchmark scores that tell us whether or not students are on track to meet those important ACT readiness scores. Scores from these assessments are also included in a school and district’s overall score.” They are now in the process of beginning to weave competency education into their work, keeping a strong focus on equity. (more…)

Yes, This Is Definitely Evidence

December 4, 2012 by


In a previous post I summarized the evidence of competency education making a difference in student achievement and school performance.

Sometimes a picture says a thousand words.  Below is a snapshot of Adams 50 transformation from having seven schools identified as lowest-performing to having zero. ZERO.  Notice the schools in green – those are the highest performing schools that expanded from two to seven schools in three years.



You can see the image more clearly here. (more…)

Getting Butts Out of Seats and Kids Out of Ruts

October 30, 2012 by

Take a minute to see the Colorado Legacy Foundation‘s incredible video.  It is a vibey, upbeat, inspiring video that sets the direction for next gen learning.

This video says it all. Thanks to CLF for getting it so-right.

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