Heritage language learners add to the rich variety of the U.S.’s languages, yet all too often those very students are denied the recognition they deserve. The Seal of Biliteracy movement, which recognizes students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages, has swept across the U.S. like wildfire. The movement began in California in 2011, and now 43 states and the District of Columbia offer a State Seal of Biliteracy to qualified high school seniors. The original objective of Californians Together, the group that successfully campaigned for the first Seal, was to value multilingualism and “the high level of academic achievement associated with attaining literacy in multiple languages.” Yet too often these high school heritage learners are being denied access to the Seal of Biliteracy, just as are the thousands of bilingual learners in community-based heritage language schools. The Seal provides the perfect opportunity for educators in bilingual, English language, and world language contexts to come together and collaborate to give recognition to the language accomplishments of all these learners, who are striving to develop the language skills that are so critical to their success in life.
In some states, that original mission of recognizing heritage languages faces challenges. With notable exceptions, such as the Chicago Public Schools, which provides a majority of its Seals to heritage language learners, the bulk of State Seals are being awarded to native-English-speaking second language learners rather than bilingual heritage learners. Rules designed to provide rigor and credibility have had the undesired effect of creating disproportionate barriers to heritage learners that limit equitable access to this valuable award. Rather than fulfill the Seal’s original mission, the program has often deprived both individual students and their communities of affirming recognition and opportunity. It also devalues the language skills that are critically important to the economy, security, and cultural richness of these communities and the nation. Making the State Seals equally accessible to all students with language skills is essential if we are to be true to the American Dream.
Unintentional Inequity in Language Proficiency Testing
Earning a State Seal is not easy, and it shouldn’t be. Each individual state sets its own criteria for earning a Seal, generally ranging between intermediate-mid and advanced-low. Most states require a level of rigor in language testing to qualify for the award. As so often happens, discrimination is embedded in the details of regulations, even when the intentions of the regulations are good. For the 15 or so languages that are widely taught, multiple tests are available that assess all four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) that make up biliteracy. The challenge comes for the many so-called less commonly taught languages, where four-skill tests are not commercially available, even if for many of these languages two-skill tests of speaking and writing are. In an attempt to create rigor, rather than accept the results of these two-skill tests, many states require that students with these less commonly taught languages (who are almost exclusively heritage speakers) create a portfolio of writing and speaking samples and some evidence of reading and listening skills intended to demonstrate proficiency in all four skills. Unfortunately, due to a lack of qualifying four-skill tests, coupled with the complexity and cost of creating portfolios, many of these students are simply excluded from earning a State Seal of Biliteracy.
The portfolio option, which generally requires samples in all four skills but is otherwise undefined, not only creates additional discriminatory barriers to heritage speakers but may actually reduce rigor. In contrast to commercial two-skill tests that undergo rigorous quality control, portfolios can be wildly inconsistent in terms of their requirements, inter-rater reliability, and cost. Moreover, recent research conducted by Avant Assessment, one of the providers of the two-skill tests, shows that students’ proficiency scores in the productive skills of speaking and writing are a highly reliable indicator of the minimum score those same students achieve on the receptive skills of listening and reading, respectively. Based on real proficiency data from over 15,000 recent test takers across seven representative languages who took Avant’s four-skill STAMP™ proficiency test and achieved at least an intermediate-mid score on the productive skills, their achieved receptive skill proficiency was at least as high as (and quite often higher than) their speaking and writing proficiency in approximately 93.5% of the cases. These data make a strong case that students who score at a proficiency level of at least intermediate-mid (STAMP™ Level 5) in the two-skill writing and speaking tests will also score at least at that level if tested on reading and listening (Egnatz and Santos, p. 26).
Two-Skill Language Testing Creates Opportunity for Advancement
In five states, recipients of the State Seal qualify for college credit. In other states, recipients can use their State Seals to fulfill a high school language requirement, whether they learned the language in school, at home, or in a community heritage language school. In Gates Foundation-funded research in seven districts in the Seattle area, heritage language students were given the chance to earn credits for their language skills with four-skill tests, or two-skill speaking and writing tests if a four-skill test was unavailable. Thanks to the testing, 21% of the participants earned the credits they needed to graduate from high school, and 10% were able to meet college entrance requirements who otherwise would not have had access to a four-year university (https://avantassessment.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/EducationNorthwest-ImpactofCompetencyBasedCredits.pdf).
Massachusetts recently changed its regulations to allow districts to accept results from commercially available two-skill tests to qualify students for the State Seal, and Michigan is working toward this change. With the combination of tests available from three testing companies, this change will enable speakers of 85 additional languages to qualify for the Seal through valid testing.
Such an approach goes a long way toward leveling the playing field and removing barriers to earning the State Seal, while increasing the consistency of the level of rigor for the Seals. If we are serious as a nation about equitable access to education, all states should follow the examples of Massachusetts and Michigan.
References: Egnatz, L. and Santos, V. (2021). Manuscript submitted for publication.
Angela Sherman is World Language Program supervisor at Detroit Public Schools Community District, Michigan.
Cornelius Godfrey is supervisor of educational equity, inclusion, and community relationships at Troy, Michigan School District.
Lini Athavale is at Marathi School of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
David Bong is CEO and co-founder of Avant Assessment.