English-Language Learners

Biliteracy Seals Recognize Multilingualism, But Schools Can Do More

By Ileana Najarro — June 30, 2023 7 min read
Close up of a Diploma and blue graduation ribbon.
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The U.S. Department of Education updated its guidance for school districts this month on how to best support newcomer immigrant and refugee students. It highlighted an incentive for maintaining home languages and cultures: the seal of biliteracy.

The seal is a recognition on a high school diploma that affirms a student’s proficiency in English and one or more additional world languages. States typically set by law the requirements students must meet to earn this recognition, which can vary across states and can include performance on Advanced Placement language tests, world language coursework, and more. States also set tiers of proficiency denoted, in some cases, by silver and gold seals.

What started as a grassroots campaign in 2008 to empower English learners in California to view their bilingualism as an asset rather than a barrier to academic success has grown into more of a nationwide effort with almost all states offering some form of a seal of biliteracy program today.

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Students in Dalia Gerardo’s 2nd grade class have access to school supplies labeled in Spanish and English at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala. Seals of biliteracy programs promote multilingualism as an asset across the country.
Students in Dalia Gerardo’s 2nd grade class have access to school supplies labeled in Spanish and English at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala.
Tamika Moore for Education Week

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has further promoted this type of programming in multiple public appearances this year as part of his larger push for multilingualism in public education.

While both qualitative and quantitative research point to positive impacts from students earning seals, researchers, state leaders, and advocates alike say there’s still a lot of work to do at the federal, state, and local levels in terms of strengthening existing programs, and ensuring the original intent of equity for English learners stays intact.

That includes the need for better data collection and disaggregation of the demographics of seal recipients; and better communication between state agencies, districts, teachers, students, and families on the program’s existence and how it works.

The seal’s past and present

The nonprofit Californians Together spearheaded the creation of the seal of biliteracy as a reversal of California’s proposition 227, the 1998 law that required English-only instruction in the state for years.

The goal was to allow students with bilingual families at home to keep learning their home language and then in high school take a test that would recognize this biliteracy and bilingualism, said Arthur Chou, a researcher for sealofbiliteracy.org, which tracks the expansion of seal programs nationwide and partners with Californians Together.

There were about 10,000 seal recipients the first year the California program was established in 2012, said Gina Garcia-Smith, education programs consultant in the multilingual support division for the California department of education.

The state reached a peak of about 73,000 seals before the pandemic, with that number going down to about 57,000 last year, in large part due to the pandemic, Garcia-Smith added.

The seal is part of the state’s Global California 2030 initiative, which sets goals to expand multilingualism statewide. One of those goals is that by 2040, 3 out of 4 students will have earned the state seal of biliteracy at graduation.

“We really want to see more multilingualism, both because of the global economy, but really also because it leads to pride in who you are, and the communities that you come from,” Garcia-Smith said.

In his own volunteer data collection and analysis, Chou was able to co-author a report highlighting available 2018-19 data on seal recipients from various states. The pandemic, he said, impacted states’ reporting, making 2018-19 the latest data he could compile. He hopes to publish an updated report this fall.

But there’s still an issue that needs to be resolved: There isn’t a lot of uniformity across states in terms of collecting and disaggregating seal of biliteracy data, Chou said.

The importance of proper data collection, disaggregation

Some of the students most likely to qualify for a seal of biliteracy are former English learners who attained English proficiency before starting high school and maintained their home language skills as well.

But it’s hard to know how many former English learners are seal recipients because most states don’t track these students beyond two years after exiting English learner programs, Chou said.

Most state data on seal recipients are also more aggregate numbers, and some states might not even track recipients at all.

Texas doesn’t have a formal seal of biliteracy program like other states. However, a student in the state may earn a “performance acknowledgment” on their transcript for outstanding performance in bilingualism and biliteracy, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency said. They added that the agency doesn’t collect data on performance acknowledgments.

There’s current legislation that, if it passes, would establish a statewide Texas seal of biliteracy program more akin to that found in other states.

The data collection and disaggregation are key to ensuring there aren’t any gaps in students’ access seal programs. That’s because program implementation may vary from district to district. Districts are not required to implement the programs, nor do they typically get funding to run them. Districts have to opt-in to offer it, and then, in some cases, students themselves must opt-in.

In California, the state tracks what languages students are earning the state seal of biliteracy in and breaks down how many recipients are current or former English learners, Garcia-Smith said. This year, the state also started collecting information on students with Individualized Education Plans who are earning the state seal of biliteracy.

In Connecticut, the seal of biliteracy was signed into law by the governor in 2017. Until the past year, the state reported its seal recipients’ data in the aggregate, said Megan Alubicki Flick, a multilingual learner consultant for the state’s department of education.

“It wasn’t dynamic data that we could really work with, in a meaningful way,” she said.

A chart showing 2017-2021 data on the number of current or former ELs/MLs who earned the seal of biliteracy and the number of seals earned during that time frame.

As of the 2021-22 school year, that data collection passed on to the state’s performance office which tracks a wider range of data, allowing for new disaggregation of seal of biliteracy data down to race and ethnicity, free and reduced lunch eligibility, and more.

“It allows us to have more of a clear and thorough view of both the wins, the exciting growing numbers of students that have access, and also to identify maybe some gaps or areas where we really need to focus and hone in,” Alubicki Flick said.

But when it comes to ensuring equitable access to seals across states, especially for English learners and heritage speakers, there needs to be more formalized and strategic information sharing to ensure students are even aware the seals exist.

The importance of spreading the word

In Connecticut, different people run seal of biliteracy programs in various districts. Sometimes the point person is a district’s world language coordinator. Sometimes it’s an English as a second language and/or bilingual coordinator. It can even be a school principal, Alubicki Flick said.

Because those various leaders might not interact regularly with all student groups in a district, some students may miss out on all the information needed to try and earn a seal, she added.

In general, at the national scale, more attention needs to be drawn to this program because it’s not a widely recognized program, Chou in California said.

Until recently, the Connecticut state department of education was messaging districts about the seal of biliteracy in a piecemeal way, using email listservs devoted to bilingual grant receipts, ESL coordinators, and others. To better ensure all leaders implementing the seal of biliteracy were kept in the loop, the state agency created a seal of biliteracy listserv, Alubicki Flick said.

The state’s academic office also responds to a gamut of questions from districts. Since the seal itself is a computer image, she fields questions such as whether it can be downloaded in a format other than JPEG. People ask where they can find a test for a specific language. They want to know what the requirements are. They say their school board isn’t supportive of the program, so what can they do?

Alubicki Flick and others refer leaders to resources but also connect them with peer districts that may have had queries in the past or are currently grappling with the same concerns.

What more can be done

Beyond improving data collection and promotion, more can be done to make seal of biliteracy programs more robust.

Since the state seal was established in 2012, no funding has been allocated for the purpose of the program in California, Garcia-Smith said. Funding from the state could assist in rolling out seal programming.

There can even be national professional development grants dedicated to reviewing the standards around seal programs, Alubicki Flick said.

In California, there are efforts underway to ensure the seal counts for college credit. And leaders in both California and Connecticut have created informal networks across state lines to learn more about how to bolster their programs—something they say federal agencies could help more formally facilitate.

In an interview with an Education Week reporter in April, Secretary Cardona said that part of his administration’s strategy is to lift up the seal of biliteracy and work with states to develop high standards for the seal so employers will be able to recognize its value.

“When you have a seal of biliteracy it actually means something. It should be as worthy as a chord at graduation,” he said.

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