Language Policy Recommendations for Policymakers and Educators

English Learners Left Behind

In this excerpt from her book English Learners Left Behind (Multilingual Matters, 2008), Dr. Kate Menken offers language policy recommendations targeted towards policymakers and educators based on her experiences working with English language learners (ELLs) in New York City Schools.

Education policy and language policy

The power play between educational policy and language policy is thus complex, as top-down education policies often assume the place of language policies in schools. When this happens, top-down policies overpower local practices and it can become difficult for schools to provide quality educational programming for their language learners; all too often, such policies directly disadvantage these students. Specifically, the assessment and accountability mandates of No Child Left Behind are 'leaving behind' alarming numbers of English language learners.

This is enabled by high-stakes testing, as ELLs are required to receive the same passing scores as other students on linguistically challenging exams which evaluate language proficiency as much as content knowledge. Not surprisingly, ELLs perform far below other students on standardized exams across subject areas in New York and elsewhere. When test scores are attached thigh-stakes decisions like high school graduation, they can limit the future opportunities of ELLs.

Yet top-down educational policies need not undermine the quality of programming a school provides to its ELLs. The schools which are most vulnerable to the influence of testing as de facto language policy are those which do not have strong language policies and programs in place to counterbalance recent federal mandates. Therefore, the following are two main protections the services a school offers language learners:

  • Strong, coherent, clearly articulated and implemented schoolwide language policy.
  • Top-down educational policies that support local language policies and practices.

A clear and cohesive school-based language policy which is consistently implemented on a schoolwide basis with a collective vision for the education of ELLs, is the greatest way to protect programming and negotiate topdown reforms and policies in ways that make sense for ELL students.

Freeman (2004) and Corson (1999) offer clear guidance on the creation and implementation of school language policies. In the ideal world, all new educational policies would consider ELLs, support the language programming a school provides and improve local practices. While this latter recommendation is perhaps idealistic, and may be more difficult to attain than establishing strong school-based language policies, it is nonetheless essential to pursue.

With these fundamental points in mind, the following are recommendations based on the research shared English Learners Left Behind. These recommendations are relevant to No Child Left Behind, yet are also related to any context where high-stakes testing, language policy, and language learning intersect. Some recommendations mainly pertain to New York, as noted, though these also have implications elsewhere. The following recommendations are divided into those for educational policymakers, and those for schools and teachers.

Language policy recommendations

Recommendations for educational policymakers

  • Support schools in their development of clear and cohesive schoolwide language policies and in their decisions to teach language minority students in their native languages. Adopt only those testing and other educational policies which support a school's language policy, particularly if that policy involves native language instruction.
  • Shift the paradigm to focus on the provision of opportunities to learn for ELLs. Ensure schools have all of the resources needed, through the provision of superior programming that is long enough in duration to offer sufficient support for English acquisition and native language development, superb instruction, high-quality materials in the language(s) of instruction, ample funding, and other necessary features.
  • Move away from an over-reliance on standardized tests to allowing for the use of multiple measures of student achievement in addition to the tests (e.g. an array of samples of student work, grades, classroom performance, teacher recommendations) when assessing a student. Redesign the accountability system to also include district, school, and classroom-based measures of student performance. Permit portfolios or other performance assessments which yield more accurate results with regard to ELLs than traditional assessments.
  • Include ELLs into accountability systems in ways that are valid, appropriate, and fair for this student population. Develop assessments with ELL students in mind from the outset, rather than trying to include them as an afterthought into assessments developed for native English speakers. These assessments should be in English and students' native languages, and designed to determine content knowledge and language development separately. Assessments should offer information that is helpful to teachers, for example in identifying areas for future instruction.
  • Allow for the measurement of progress rather than simply of outcomes on high-stakes exams, by showing annual growth in exam scores as well as performance in relation to a set bar for achievement, particularly on English exams.

The recommendations below focus mainly on New York, though they have implications elsewhere:

  • While it is acceptable for ELLs to take the English Regents or other exams in English as an academic exercise, their scores should not be used to determine high school graduation nor as the basis for any other high-stakes decisions.
  • Exam translations should be provided in all languages spoken by ELLs in high school. Provide clear guidance to schools on how and when translations should be used. In specific, students should receive English and native language versions so that they can use both during the exam session. And, permit students to respond in both languages. Ensure that exam translations are accurate.
  • Minority languages should count. Performance by ELLs on language arts exams that are in their native language, such as the Chinese Regents or Spanish Regents should count within the accountability system. Much like English Regents exams for native English speakers, these exams display important literacy skills in a student's native language.

Recommendations for schools and teachers

  • Develop schoolwide language policies that are consistent and cohesive, which support the desires of the community the school serves. A school's language policy should be used to establish coherent K-12 language programming for ELLs in which language learning is consistent and diversity is regarded as a resource.
  • Even though No Child Left Behind accountability requirements implicitly promote English, schools should be able to support native language instruction. As shown at Focal School #1 in this research, doing so will aid rather than hinder students' development of English literacy.
  • Although it is clear that educators need to address exam skills in their instruction, given the realities of high-stakes testing, tests should not drive instruction for ELLs. Rather, research on the effective education of ELLs should. For example, while it sets high expectations for ELLs to strive to pass the English Regents, it is pedagogically unsound to place beginning level ESL students in daily English Regents preparation courses or to center the English instruction they receive on these tests. Furthermore, teachers must have the space for instruction that goes beyond test preparation.
  • Bilingual teachers should match their language(s) of instruction to the language(s) in which students will be tested, to yield valid scores on the tests that count. That said, and recognizing how current policies catch bilingual teachers in a difficult bind with regard to language alternation, the demands of the tests should also be balanced with other demands such as the knowledge required of students' futures in the United States.

Assessment and the evaluation of students, educators, and schools can be extremely valuable in improving our educational system in positive ways. However, this cannot be achieved by relying solely on standardized tests; this research documents how the drawbacks of accountability under No Child Left Behind outweigh the benefits for ELLs at present. It is of concern that test scores are closely aligned trace, class, and English proficiency level, yet serve as the indicator for accountability measures. As the system is now, we are simply perpetuating the inequities of students when they enter school, through the inequities of their test scores when they leave. Moreover, implicit language policies which emerge as byproducts of testing policies cannot rival the results of careful planning in providing the best possible education to ELLs.

Within the trajectory of education policy in the United States, we have arrived at a critical crossroads with regard to testing and accountability for students who are English language learners. On one hand, we have raised our expectations for these students. Yet on the other hand, we have created test-based systems that build barriers which are equally likely to impede upon the success of these students. In light of these realities, we must ensure that this becomes a time of possibility rather than liability for students who are English language learners in public schools, by creating systems that not only include but, further, promote the ideal education for these students. Doing so, as indicated in the recommendations above, is entirely feasible.


Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


Menken, K. English Learners Left Behind. Excerpt from Chapter 9, "Moving Forward: Embracing Multilingual Policies from the Top-Down tthe Bottom-Up." Pgs. 184-88. Buffalo: Multilingual Matters, 2008. Reprinted with permission.


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