English-Language Learners

Who’s Earning the Seal of Biliteracy? In One State, It’s Mostly English-Learners

By Corey Mitchell — July 09, 2019 5 min read
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California’s statewide push to honor students who master a second language is growing—and English-language learners are benefiting the most.

In the class of 2018, 63 percent of graduates who earned the “seal of biliteracy” spoke a language other than English when they began school, a new report from Californians Together, an English-learner research and advocacy group, found. Those youths, identified in the report as heritage-language students, include current English-learners, former English-learners reclassified as English proficient, and students identified as bilingual when they began school.

The seal of biliteracy is affixed to high school diplomas or transcripts as proof that graduates can communicate in more than one language. Its popularity has surged across the country as more states and school systems have placed an emphasis on honoring multilingual graduates and in helping more English-learners become proficient.

Overall, about 47,000 students, or 11 percent of California’s class of 2018 graduates received the seal of biliteracy. The state aims to triple that number by 2030, with 150,000 students receiving the honor.

Equal Opportunity?

When the seal launched in California nearly a decade ago, its advocates envisioned an honor that would recognize both English-language learners and native English speakers.

But an earlier study from Georgetown University questioned whether that goal is possible in California or anywhere else—principally because not all states would provide English-learners with opportunities to demonstrate that they can read, speak, and write in more than one language. Some schools, especially whiter, wealthier schools with fewer English-learners, are more likely to offer the recognition than others, concludes the Georgetown study, “Recognizing Whose Bilingualism? A Critical Policy Analysis of the Seal of Biliteracy.”

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, said the group produced its report, “Who Are the Recipients of the State Seal of Biliteracy,” in response to concerns about English-learners having a fair shot at being recognized as bilingual.

The push for the statewide seal of biliteracy in Calfornia began as advocacy groups, including Californians Together, mounted a public campaign to repeal Proposition 227, a law passed in the late 1990s that required “English-only” instruction for all students, including those who aren’t native speakers of the language, Spiegel-Coleman said. In 2016, California voters overwhelming approved Proposition 58, which paved the way for the return of bilingual education and growth in the number of dual-language immersion programs across the state.

“The seal of biliteracy was birthed out of that context,” Spiegel-Coleman said. “This was a way, finally, to be able to talk about bilingualism, biliteracy, and language-heritage students through a positive lens and to really change the conversation about educating English-learners.”

California has nine districts with high schools where more than 50 percent of students are English-learners; only one doesn’t offer the seal of biliteracy, according to the Californians Together report. The Californians Together report did find that a third of the state’s school districts that have high schools do not offer the seal of biliteracy, but most of the districts without the seal are clustered in northern parts of the states in schools with few English-learners, Spiegel-Coleman said.

Californians Together suggests that their state could serve as a model for others seeking to ensure that English-learners have opportunities to display their multilingualism and earn recognition for their skills.

To reach that goal, the report recommends that states track and publish demographic information on students earning the seal of biliteracy, develop campaigns to help English-learner parents learn about it, and provide more resources to districts and schools looking to offer more dual-language, immersion, and world-language programs.

In the seven years since California established its seal of biliteracy, more than 30 states have passed legislation or state laws creating their own. California has also launched Global California 2030, a plan to triple the number of students proficient in a language other than English. The initiative also aims to help the state develop and hire more multilingual teachers.

But California may not be the most ideal case study for the rest of the country: The state has more than 1.2 million English-learners in its K-12 schools; that’s more than twice as many as Texas, the state with the second-highest total. And English-learners in California comprise about 20 percent of the entire student population.

The Georgetown researchers also determined that, even when they have the opportunity, English-learners often face higher hurdles to earn the honor: The criteria for earning the seal holds English-learners to higher standards in their second language (English) than native English-speakers are held to in theirs.

Native English-speaking students in California can prove their proficiency in a language other than English in by completing four years of foreign language classes with at least a ‘B’ average and an oral proficiency exam or passing an AP or International Baccalaureate exam.

But several states do not require students with a ‘B’ average to take exams; it’s a goal that students could achieve without actually being fluent in the language, critics say.

The Georgetown reseachers say the path to be verified as biliterate may be tougher for English-learners, who must take formal exams to assess their multilingual ability, and those tests are often limited to languages studied in U.S. high school world-language classes. While organizations such as the AP, the College Board, and the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language offer exams in multiple languages, the available offerings do not come close to covering all the 90-plus languages spoken in just Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school system.

Related Reading

The Truth About Bilingualism. It’s Only for Some Students

As More States Adopt Bilingualism Seal, Equity Concerns Arise

Nearly Half of U.S. States Offer Special Recognition for Bilingual Graduates

California Aims to Make (Even) More Students Multilingual

Image Credit: Californians Together

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.