English-Language Learners

Seal of Biliteracy Programs: A Guide for Schools

By Ileana Najarro — November 15, 2023 6 min read
Illustrations of "Hello" in multiple languages, blue color.
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Forty nine states now offer students the opportunity to earn seals of biliteracy showing their skills in two or more languages, according to the latest data. Yet school districts are still working toward implementing and refining seal of biliteracy programs at the local level.

The Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition hosted a two-part webinar this month offering guidance for district and school leaders on best practices to ensure all students—including English learners and heritage-language learners—have the opportunity to earn the seal of biliteracy.

The seal is a special recognition on a high school diploma that affirms a student’s proficiency in English and one or more additional languages, including American Sign Language. Language proficiency is the ability to use a language for every day purposes, such as accomplishing tasks that you would encounter in the real world when you speak that language, across a wide range of topics and settings, said Kristin J. Davin, professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

See also

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

There are a variety of ways students can meet requirements for recognition including performance on Advanced Placement language tests, world language coursework, and more. States also set tiers of proficiency such as silver and gold seals for different levels of mastery.

Davin, along with Amy J. Heineke, a professor of education at Loyola University Chicago described their five-part framework for adopting and operating seal programs in an equitable way by focusing on: purpose, programs, promotions, partners, and proficiency assessments.

Set a purpose for a seal program

Seal of biliteracy programs began as a grassroots effort in California in 2012. Most of the time, it’s a voluntary initiative that starts at the school and district level.

As a result, Heineke said there needs to be a tangible goal in place to get an entire school community on board with implementing a seal of biliteracy program—and dedicate local funding for it.

That goal can be a certain percentage of students graduating with a seal each year, or expanding what languages are covered under seal requirements.

“What are we aiming to achieve with the seal of biliteracy? Making sure that they’re measurable. How will we know that we reached this goal,” are questions to ask, Davin said.

A good starting point in developing a goal or purpose behind a district’s seal program is to figure out what languages exist in homes, schools, and communities within a district, Davin said. Home language surveys, check-ins with parents, and a review of what languages are taught in schools across a district are some ways to go about this.

District leaders must also seek input from educators, community leaders, parents, and students for what goals to set and to get broad support.

“School counselors are really important individuals to be involved, since they guide students through the registration process and the pathway to higher education,” Davin said.

See also

Close up of a Diploma and blue graduation ribbon.

Attach seal programs to district priorities

One way to help ensure that goals for a seal program are met is by attaching a program to existing language programs or initiatives in a district, including dual-language classes, English-as-a-second-language instruction, and more.

Often, the management of seal programs falls to a district’s world language or bilingual education coordinator, Heineke said, which can limit access if that administrator’s purview does not entail working with all students and educators across the district.

“You can attach the seal to a larger strategic plan priority around global citizenship and college and career preparedness,” she added. “Where we’ve seen the seal of biliteracy implemented really widely and deeply are places that have strategically enlisted the support of their superintendents, of their school boards, and taking the time continually, not just up front, but over time to go in and give that pitch about why this matters.”

For instance, districts can use the seal in conjunction with International Baccalaureate programs that already require world language instruction.

And some districts have moved to not just offering a chance at getting a seal in high school, but rather creating pathway recognitions, which celebrate students’ biliteracy across the PK-12 continuum, Heineke added.

Promote seal programs

Having a purpose in mind and strategies in place as to how all students can access a seal recognition won’t do much if students and educators aren’t aware of the option.

To ensure information is shared widely, Heineke said district leaders should ask themselves: “How do you get the word out efficiently and effectively to students, to families, to educators, to community members about other initiatives that take priority in your district? In what ways do you have the capacity to extend these communications in multiple languages?”

Some strategies that have worked in districts include: a dedicated webpage for the seal of biliteracy; disseminating letters to students and families with information about the program; posting on social media; and gathering students for meetings to learn more about how to attain a seal.

Explaining the benefits of earning a seal of biliteracy is essential in any promotion and communications. Research has found benefits for students pursuing higher education after attaining the seal. Pitches can be made on the value of multilingualism in the job market, and more.

For districts that are refining existing efforts, Heineke suggested surveying how many students and educators are even aware of a seal program.

Think broadly about partnerships when implementing seal programs

Throughout the implementation and management of seal programs, parents, students, educators, and community leaders must have the opportunity to share input on what they hope the goals of the program should be and how to meet them, Davin said.

There may be students with proficiency in a second language that isn’t formally taught in schools. How can they earn the seal? Solutions to questions like that may be found within a broader school community.

State education agencies can play a role in supporting such partnerships too. The Connecticut department of education created a seal of biliteracy listserv to connect district leaders seeking support in implementing and sustaining seal programs.

Select the right proficiency assessment for your school or district

When it comes to choosing how to assess students’ language proficiency for a seal of biliteracy, districts have a variety of options.

Some key questions Davin suggests district leaders consider:

  • Do students have to pass a language proficiency assessment to earn a seal of biliteracy?
  • Or are there other pathways through which they can demonstrate or provide evidence of their proficiency?
  • When should students take the assessment? Are you going to do it during the school day? Are you going to do it after school?
  • What’s the procedure for awarding the seal if a student’s language is not taught in school?
  • What are the technology requirements since most assessments require students to listen and respond to spoken prompts?

For the sake of equity, leaders must also think about whether the seal is only available to students in world language classes or Advanced Placement classes.
Many states also have alternative assessment policies where students can create a language portfolio, or get certification from an indigenous nation to count toward the seal, Davin said.

“There are a lot of individuals across the country who have done this already. So you might be able to find someone who’s already created [an assessment], if you need it,” Davin added.


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