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Leading with the Seal of Biliteracy: How the Seal is Empowering Students & Programs to Thrive

How the Seal is Empowering Students & Programs to Thrive (and How You Can Help)

Featured LAD21 Sponsor ACTFL

Author: Erin M. Whelchel, ACTFL Outreach Manager

To the untrained eye, the Seal of Biliteracy may look like another gold emblem on a high school

graduate’s transcript or diploma, but as more Americans are learning every day, that seal represents the

lifetime of language experience unique to each recipient—from an impressive portfolio of work and

years of dedicated language learning, to pride in family heritage and enhanced global competence. It

also informs future admissions staff and employers of language proficiency, placing recipients at a

distinct advantage in future pursuits over their monolingual peers.

So, What Is the Seal?

The Seal of Biliteracy is an award granted by a school, school district, or state in recognition of students

who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages. Begun in 2008 by Californians

Together as a grassroots movement to recognize the achievements of California K-12 English Learners, it

has grown to a nationally recognized initiative, currently active as an approved program or in planning

stages in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The Seal continues to grow and garner success as an important resource for students, educators, and

other advocates for language education—promoting the value of heritage speakers’ and English

Learners’ unique competencies, emphasizing the importance of languages to career-readiness for all

students, and shining a spotlight on the skills young Americans need to compete and succeed in our

increasingly global and interconnected society.

The Seal of Biliteracy was first passed into law 2011, when future Congresswoman Julia Brownley wrote

legislation creating the California State Seal. The following spring, California awarded its Seal to more

than 10,000 graduating high school seniors, and in 2013, U.S. Representative Brownley introduced to

Congress the Biliteracy Education Seal and Teaching (BEST) Act, bringing the Seal to national attention in

proposing renewable funding for states to establish or improve Seal of Biliteracy programs.

In July 2020, the BEST Act was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives as part of the William M.

(Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2021. While the BEST Act wasn’t

included in the conference version of the NDAA that ultimately passed and became law, its success up to

that point remains a significant win for language advocates around the country and puts future federal-

level Seal legislation on a positive trajectory.

The Impact on Students and Programs

Data from the recent 2018-19 National Seal of Biliteracy Report, collected from 31 existing programs

and published in 2020, shows that 108,199 students were awarded a Seal in 2019, up from 91,433

recipients the preceding year. Seals were granted to mark proficiency 119 languages in addition to

English, with an average of 20 languages per state program and Washington state topping the charts at

69 languages. Furthermore, while more than 90 percent of all states who participated in the survey

awarded Seals in Spanish, French, and German in 2019, significant percentages of states awarded Seals

in Japanese (70 percent), Vietnamese (60 percent), ASL (50 percent), Tagalog (47 percent), Urdu (30

percent), and other languages.

All but one of the currently approved state programs uses proficiency test results as part of their process

for students to qualify, with the majority of states requiring students to reach the “Intermediate Mid”

range of ACTFL’s Proficiency Guidelines, or a corresponding level on an Advanced Placement (AP) or

International Baccalaureate (IB) exam.

This means that in order for students to earn the Seal, K-12 schools need to develop and employ more

proficiency-driven curricula, assessing throughout the learning process what students “can do” with

their language skills when presented with authentic situations. And to assure a smooth articulation for

recipients entering postsecondary programs at this heightened level, colleges and universities now have

the opportunity to reevaluate course offerings to meet the demands of undergraduates seeking more

challenging programs that will prepare them to use their skills in real-world applications.

The Path Forward

As we look ahead to universal, nationwide implementation of the Seal of Biliteracy—now so close—we

need to ensure that the Seal programs specific to each state continue to be designed to serve all U.S.

students equitably.

Building on lessons derived throughout a decade of challenges and triumphs, in late 2020 seven

organizations, including ACTFL, jointly published the updated “Guidelines for Implementing the Seal of

Biliteracy,” with a goal of strengthening existing strategies for implementation, encouraging expansion

of local and state practices, and connecting all language programs across levels to support all learners

regardless of their native or heritage languages.

These Guidelines address critical topics such as the need for ongoing advocacy to establish Seal

programs and recruit a diverse range of participants; the importance of crafting multiple pathways to

biliteracy, and then documenting those pathways throughout a learner’s educational experience; and an

emphasis on making certain that the proficiency criteria set by each state is comparable in both (or all

three, if applicable) of any learner’s languages, to ensure equity for both native speakers and those

using a target language. They also provide guidance specific to State Education Agencies (SEAs), Public

School Districts, and Non-Public Entities—those organizations and institutions most often responsible

for implementing Seal programs.

Attention Advocates

As we celebrate ACTFL’s fourth annual Lead with Languages Advocacy Month this February, we

encourage all language advocates to learn more about the status of the Seal in their state and work to

promote awareness of Seal programs so that all students can benefit from equitable and accessible

nationwide implementation.

There are so many ways to make a difference!

  • Familiarize yourself with the report data and updated Guidelines linked above.

  • Think broadly about the stakeholders involved—from educators and administrators, to community-based learning programs, educational agencies, and even business leaders. Speak with those in your network about the Seal of Biliteracy.

  • Identify and make learners aware of the eligibility criteria for students in your state.

  • Support legislation like the BEST Act when proposed by contacting your representatives.

  • And be sure to celebrate and spread the word about the vibrant achievements of recent Seal recipients!

The Seal of Biliteracy has made incredible strides to date, and with the invaluable support of advocates

like you, it will continue to empower students and programs to thrive for many years to come.

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