English Learners

Earning Seals of Biliteracy Are Beneficial to Students. Here’s What the Research Shows

By Ileana Najarro — June 30, 2023 5 min read
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.
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Students who graduated from a New Mexico school district with a “seal of biliteracy” on their diplomas, signifying their mastery of two languages, enrolled in four-year colleges at higher rates and better persisted in their enrollment compared to their graduating peers who did not earn the seal, new research finds.

The district wanted to know what impact offering seals of biliteracy was having on its students.

The seal is a distinction that is increasingly being offered in states across the country, and one that U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been cheerleading in various public appearances this year.

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Close up of a Diploma and blue graduation ribbon.
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Researchers say that case studies from over the years suggests that seals of biliteracy offer a symbolic and personal benefit to students. In particular, it can help English learners and heritage speakers feel more validated in their multilingual identities. The seal recognizes their home language skills as an academic honor and not a barrier to academic success, advocates and researchers say.

What researchers found in the New Mexico district was empirical evidence of another benefit: graduates of the district who earned a seal between the 2017-18 and 2019-20 school years were more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and they were more likely to be enrolled full time when compared to peers who did not earn the seal.

The New Mexico study, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences, tapped into prevailing questions researchers continue to explore on the efficacy of seal of biliteracy programs. Namely, what can these programs offer students, which students currently have access to them, and why should school districts, state leaders, and federal education leaders invest in strengthening and expanding these programs?

The empirical and anecdotal arguments in favor of seals

About 7 percent of graduates from the New Mexico district earned a seal of biliteracy in the given school years, said lead researcher Brenda Arellano, a senior researcher with the American Institutes for Research. These students were more likely to be Hispanic, to be eligible for free and reduced price meals, to have ever been an English learner student, and to speak Spanish at home.

When adjusting for demographic characteristics, high school attended, and college readiness, 85 percent of the seal recipients enrolled in college within one year of high school graduation, compared with 72 percent of graduates who did not earn a seal, Arellano said.

More empirical data like this with larger sample sizes are needed across the country, Arellano said, to better understand why districts should invest time and resources to offer and expand biliteracy seal programs.

Data collection and tracking of who gets seals and how varies across states, which makes such analyses difficult. While states pass legislation approving seals and the requirements needed to earn them, districts ultimately implement these programs to varying degrees of success, Arellano and other researchers said.

In a qualitative report on a rural northern Florida school published in 2021, Nidza Marichal, co-author of the report and a University of Florida researcher in bilingual education, interviewed a Spanish teacher who learned about her state’s seal of biliteracy program through professional development. She spoke with administrators in her district about getting it started.

Florida offers both a gold seal of biliteracy (the highest level of competency in languages) and/or a silver seal of biliteracy (second-highest level of competency), according to the state’s department of education.

The teacher in Marichal’s report offered to teach AP Spanish Language and Culture so that students, especially the school’s migrant students, could potentially earn the seal upon successfully completing the course and passing its exam. But she had to convince her administrators it was worth investing in adding the course and then sorting out the logistics of adding seals to high school diplomas, Marichal said.

The teacher had to make the case for rewarding bilingualism in a school where that wasn’t the norm, Marichal said. After succeeding, Marichal found that students spoke proudly of having the option of a seal at their school.

“I think that the most important thing is listening to the voices of those children and what this seal has meant for them,” Marichal said. “It has meant that now they can speak to their relatives, they are proud of their heritage, they are proud of their language and culture.”

Yet, even with preliminary findings shedding hope on the potential benefits of seal of biliteracy programs, more work needs to happen to make them more robust and equitable, said Chris Chang-Bacon, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development.

What needs to happen to improve standards and access to seals

Improvements to seal of biliteracy programs can happen at multiple levels.

States could get more creative in what requirements they set for earning seals, Chang-Bacon said. Currently, a lot of states emphasize standardized testing as a tool for determining biliteracy.

Laws that enact seals in states are written in ways that presume a monolingual English-speaking student that would take some additional classes, take some AP classes, and then become biliterate and bilingual, Chang-Bacon said. Even though the origins of these programs were intended to uplift English learners and students who were already biliterate and bilingual upon entering high school.

States could expand requirements for seals by including options such as tribal certifications, or recognize mastery of two non-English languages as in the case of Hawaii where seals count for Hawaiian and another language, Chang-Bacon said.

When the seal started becoming popular, there was some research that said that it tended to be more available in more affluent districts, Chang-Bacon added.

With all these caveats in mind, he said districts need to better inform all students and families about seal programs, how they work, and what’s required. States should help get colleges and universities more invested in counting seals of biliteracy for college credit. States should also improve upon data collection of seal recipients, disaggregating it to ensure there is equitable access as more districts come to offer access.

Individual cities, districts, localities, and communities should have more autonomy and agency over how someone can qualify to get the seal in their state.

And ultimately, for the seal of biliteracy to truly uplift multilingualism as an asset in public education, also there needs to be an investment in bilingual educators, dual language programs, and more world language course offerings.

“The real work happens in ensuring that students have the access to recognition of their existing bilingualism and also coursework to further their bilingualism,” Chang-Bacon said.

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