[lg policy] Washington Post: "A new marker of success at graduation: The seal of biliteracy"

Scott Andrew Wible swible at umd.edu
Wed Jun 7 13:05:37 EDT 2017


*A new marker of success at graduation: The seal of biliteracy*

By Donna St. George

*Washington Post*

June 5, 2017

Max Moss started studying Spanish in sixth grade and never stopped. He
learned to speak the language, read it and understand conversations. By the
time he hit 12th grade, he knew enough to recite 13th century poetry and
write his senior thesis in Spanish.

This week, as he graduates from high school, he will be among the first
Maryland students recognized for his linguistic achievement under a new
state program.

The teenager and hundreds of others in the state are getting a “seal of
with their diplomas for showing high levels of proficiency in English and
another language. The idea comes from a national initiative that has picked
up momentum, with more than two dozen states
<http://sealofbiliteracy.org/faq#n293> and the District of Columbia
embracing it during the past six years.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Moss, 18, who graduates from Richard
Montgomery High School in Rockville on Thursday. “It’s nice to be
recognized. I took it seven years, and I put a lot of work into it.”

Educators say they hope the recognition sends a broader message about the
value of language learning, giving a boost to students who excel in a
foreign language as well as those who arrive speaking foreign languages and
then learn English.

“It may be one of the game changers that will help us turn the tide in this
country and help us focus on raising a multilingual citizenry,” said Marty
Abbott, executive director of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign

Maryland lawmakers passed legislation to create the program in 2016, and it
has taken shape in the months since then. Seven of the state’s 24 school
systems signed on for this graduation season, including those in Montgomery
and Prince George’s counties. More are expected to follow.

“We see enthusiasm for adding it in other counties,” said Susan Spinnato,
director of instructional programs for the Maryland State Department of

With graduations in full swing, the state’s largest school system, in
Montgomery, is bestowing the honor on 770 students this year. As many as
1,000 others could also be eligible after graduation as a result of
Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) test scores
that will come out this summer.

“It’s a good number for the first year, and I’m hoping that the numbers
will grow exponentially,” said Francoise Vandenplas, the school system’s
world languages supervisor.

Vandenplas said the program rewards the hard work of becoming biliterate
and underscores the value of native languages. It also may help colleges as
they place students in courses, or provide future employers with an
indicator of language skills, she said.

To qualify
the honor, students must do well on the state’s standardized English exam
as well as language tests approved by the state. On an AP language exam,
for example, Maryland requires a score of 4 or 5 on a five-point scale.
Criteria for the seal vary by state; in neighboring Virginia and D.C., for
instance, AP exam scores must be a 3 or higher.

Gabriella Armonda, 18, who graduates Friday from Northwood High School in
Silver Spring, said she only learned of the honor at her school’s senior
academic awards night, when she and other students were recognized.

She had started in a Spanish immersion program in kindergarten.

“It means a lot because language is something that has always been
important to me,” she said. “I think it will definitely help throughout my

In Prince George’s, 79 students earned the seal of biliteracy this spring
and were celebrated at an awards night in late May. More could qualify this
summer based on AP and IB exam results.

“It’s powerful to speak another language,” said Maria Flores, supervisor of
world languages for Prince George’s schools. “That opens new doors for
students in job searches and at universities.”

For Makafui Dzeze, 18, valedictorian for the class of 2017 at Central High
School, the seal validates her long experience with French. She started at
age 3 in the West African nation of Togo and enrolled in a French immersion
school in Prince George’s in fourth grade.

She is one of 13 graduates of the French immersion program at Central High.
All received the seal.

Dzeze said she views the honor as an accomplishment but says the program
needs to be more widely publicized, so that students undertand the value of
having another language and also know what it takes to earn the seal of

When she told a friend about it, she said, he congratulated her but asked:
“What is that?”

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) said she pushed for the program for
three years and has been heartened by how many students are qualifying
right away. “It’s a huge step for recognizing the value of
multilingualism,” she said.

Virginia officials say they awarded more than 5,200 seals of biliteracy
last year, when their program rolled out.

Suzette Wyhs, world languages supervisor in Loudoun County schools, recalls
a national conference in 2009 or 2010 when the idea bubbled up, with
California then passing legislation in 2011. D.C. followed in 2014, then
Virginia in 2015.

This year, Loudoun will award more than 200 seals of biliteracy, with many
English language learners qualifying, she said.

“I expect the numbers to go up as the public becomes more aware of this,”
Wyhs said, pointing out that the learning goes far beyond vocabulary and
sentence formation.

“Students who get to this level of language come to understand the people
who speak the language, their practices, their belief systems,” she said.
“It really is more than just words. It even changes their thinking and
perspective and the way they see the world.”

Other Washington-area school systems have also embraced the program. In
Fairfax County, about 3,500 students earned the honor last year. There were
also 95 recognized students in Alexandria, 529 in Arlington and 79 in
Prince William, according to state data.

The D.C. school system started its program in 2014-15, with 11 students
earning seals. This year, 64 qualified, and 11 more could qualify if
pending test
scores meet the mark.

At Richard Montgomery High, where Moss studied Spanish, 120 students are
receiving the honor this year. The school has an International
Baccalaureate magnet program that emphasizes global learning and language.

“They were very excited,” said Maria Solernou, head of the world languages
department. “They work very hard for many years. It is not easy to read
well in two languages, and these exams are not simple. They are very

Moss, who plans to attend Stanford University and hopes to one day work as
a doctor, said he would like to to continue his language interests with a
study-abroad program in a Spanish-speaking country.

“I hope to be fluent in Spanish my whole life,” he said. Language, he said,
could shape his career. “I would love to provide medical care in
Spanish-speaking areas,” he said. “Even in the United States, there are a
lot of people who would benefit from having a doctor who speaks Spanish.”


Scott Wible
Associate Professor of English
Director, Professional Writing Program
University of Maryland
1220C Tawes Hall
College Park, MD  20742
swible at umd.edu
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