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Students Nationwide Can Earn a Seal of Biliteracy. How It Can Be More Accessible

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have now passed legislation to formalize the seal of biliteracy, a designation on high school diplomas that affirms students’ bilingualism in English and one or more additional world languages.

Hundreds of educators, state leaders, and students came together at a summit held by the U.S. Department of Education on June 24 to mark the seal of biliteracy‘s growth from a grassroots campaign supporting English learners in California to a nationally recognized initiative.

States and districts alike set criteria by which students can qualify for the seal of biliteracy, including performance on Advanced Placement language tests, world language coursework, and more. At the summit, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona compared earning the seal to taking AP and honors courses.

“For far too long, students who have mastered their native language and found identity in their beautiful culture have been made to feel less than in some schools,” Cardona said. “When we have more students earning the seal, we move the needle to reverse the historic focus on modern monolingualism education.”

Experts at the summit discussed the cognitive and academic benefits of elevating multilingualism through programs like the seal. They also spoke of the work that remains in expanding access to the seal for all students, and English learners in particular.

Available data don’t indicate much about who’s receiving the seal of biliteracy

In 1998, California’s later-repealed Proposition 227 required English-only instruction in the state. Efforts to elevate and celebrate bilingual education—and specifically the bilingualism of English learners—in response led to the creation of the state’s seal of biliteracy, said Samuel Aguirre, the director of WIDA Español at the WIDA consortium, which runs assessments for language proficiency of English learners.

More than 147,900 students across 39 states were awarded a seal of biliteracy in the 2021-22 school year, according to a new report reviewing national seal of biliteracy data. Of those 39 states, only 27 disaggregated recipient data to indicate how many of the seal recipients were students who were ever English learners in school.

Despite the seal’s original intent to support English learners, only 38 percent of seal recipients in those 27 states were ever English learners, Aguirre said.

While New Mexico stood out with 74 percent of its seal recipients being former English learners, Aguirre and other experts say more work must be done across states to ensure English learners and their families are aware of the seal of biliteracy and how to get it.

“In many instances, and we heard this from several states that were present [at the summit], a lot of the push for the seal of biliteracy has originated from the community,” Aguirre said

Aguirre also hopes that future seal recipient data are better disaggregated nationally, so it’s clear not only how many recipients were ever English learners status but also how many come from low-income backgrounds.

The requirements to attain the seal of biliteracy pose equity concerns

Experts say equity issues related to the seal also have to do with qualifying criteria.

Most states use standardized assessments, Aguirre said, though those aren’t a viable way to assess students’ ability in all languages.

In Texas, where the seal is referred to as a performance acknowledgment, English learners also face additional requirements that don’t apply to peers who were never English learners. That includes reclassification out of English-learner status and a high score on the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System.

“That’s very unfair for our children,” said Olivia Martinez, the English-language development and biliteracy director for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent school district in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Martinez, who spoke at the summit, wants an equitable set of requirements.

“Having been a district who has been implementing dual language for a very, very long time, I think we’ve learned a thing or two about how to best move forward and have equitable criteria or requirements for our students,” Martinez said.

The need for equitable access to the seal stems in part from its significance as an industry-recognized certification, said Michael Herrera, executive director of Upper Bucks County Technical School in Pennsylvania.

“Getting an industry recognized certification for language definitely increases our students’ prospects,” Herrera said.

Herrera’s students have gone into jobs—including in health care and manufacturing—where their seal has been not only recognized, but their language abilities put to use. Those tangible benefits provide an incentive for students to join the program and earn the seal, he said.

“When we promote our students to those companies, we believe that this will even open up more doors, more avenues,” Herrera said.

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