Classroom Language Policy and the Role of Assessment

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Students designated as English learners (ELs) make up a substantial and growing portion of the K–12 population in the U.S., so all teachers should expect, at some point, to be teachers of language learners and will need to address the complexities of managing a multilingual classroom. This management is considered classroom-level educational language policy and is an area of importance for understanding and improving the educational experiences of EL-designated students.This qualitative study used nexus analysis (Scollon & Scollon, 2004) to examine the nature of and influences on classroom-level language policymaking at two small Maryland public high schools which exclusively serve EL-designated students. Maryland lacks explicit state-level language policy, thus creating a potentially neutral policy environment for the education of EL-designated students. Data sources included in-depth interviews with two principals and five teachers from the two high schools; documents from twenty years of meetings of the State Board of Education; and other state-level and federal policy documents. Data were analyzed using thematic data analysis. Findings showed that educators managed language in the school and classroom through instructional practices that positioned English as the default language of academics and as the predominant, if not sole, language goal. Language management was mediated by educators’ language ideologies and preparation in TESOL. Through the lens of their assessment literacy, teachers weighed the burden of testing against the benefits of the data obtained through testing and either implemented instructional practices that fully embraced the test and its associated policies or practices that minimally complied with the policies. Principals used their understanding of policies to navigate unavoidable constraints and create space for success. Finally, state-level policy was significantly influenced by federal policy, in particular, No Child Left Behind, and its legacy continues in Maryland education policy today. This study highlights the need for pre-service education and in-service professional development to clarify educators’ roles as language policy agents. Implications for teacher education also include a call for expanding offerings in asset-based language education and assessment literacy. Policy implications include recommendations for the State of Maryland to enact proposed policies from the English Learners Workgroup and to revise regulations that govern high-stakes testing for high school students.