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.
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.
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
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.