Most States Offer Diploma Seals for Biliteracy

By Valerie Norville

Over the past decade, the number of states offering students the chance to earn seals of biliteracy on their high school diplomas went from zero to 38 (including the District of Columbia). California was the first to adopt such a seal in 2011, and many states subsequently modeled their seals on California’s. According to State Board Insight, Mississippi is the latest to adopt a biliteracy seal, with the board of education approving program guidelines in October 2019.

States offer seals of biliteracy for a variety of reasons. Mississippi cited its purpose as demonstrating students’ attainment of language skills. “It also signals a student’s readiness for college and career and for engagement as a global citizen,” according to the adopted rule. Hawai‘i additionally cites its desire to “establish an educational culture that recognizes and values the wealth of linguistic and cultural diversity students bring to the classroom,” to support increased proficiency in the Hawaiian language, and to encourage partnerships to increase language instruction.

Programs vary by state. Hawai‘i offers its seal to mark students’ facility with the state’s two official languages, English and Hawaiian, or either of the official languages and at least one additional language, including American Sign Language (ASL). Mississippi students can earn either a gold or silver seal, with each denoting different levels of bilingual attainment. Mississippi’s rule requires that local education agencies report disaggregated data on how many native English speakers and former English learners received diploma seals in their districts.

Criteria vary. States often require students to demonstrate proficiency in a state summative English language assessment and completion of all English language arts coursework required for graduation with a set average grade. Students typically demonstrate proficiency in speaking, writing, listening, and reading in a second language through an assessment, such as the Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages or the Advanced Placement World Language and Culture Exam. In some states, four years of high school language study above a set grade point average can be used to demonstrate proficiency in a world language.

Many states have seen an increase in district adoption and in how many students met state criteria for award of the seal. For example, Illinois reported about 500 students earning its seal in the 2014–15 school year; more than 6,000 seals were awarded in 27 languages in the 2018–19 school year, with almost 3,000 more students receiving a biliteracy commendation. Some boards receive regular updates on the program; Kansas’s board receives an annual update.

Analysts and state education agencies have identified some tricky implementation issues around assessment of language proficiency. States may opt to allow students to submit portfolios in lieu of written and spoken tests, or where written tests are not available (as with ASL and some Native American languages) or experts are unavailable to assess speaking ability. In Illinois, students can demonstrate proficiency through presentations given or papers written in their target language or by showing evidence that their backgrounds, activities, or time spent in a country where the language is spoken have provided them with the necessary experience in using the language.

State boards can also ask when participating districts are informing students and their parents about the program. Even the freshman year is late to embark on a path to proficiency in more difficult languages, and learning about the seal in subsequent years is also not helpful for learning the languages typically offered in high school curricula. Mississippi’s guidelines recommend informing students in the seventh and eighth grades.