Equity and Access to Opportunity to Earn the Seal of Biliteracy


Each state, municipality, district, or school should first specify the level of oral and written (or signed) proficiency in each language that a learner must demonstrate to achieve the seal. Once the level of proficiency required has been identified, the means to demonstrate that level of proficiency need to be established. The critical issues in identifying appropriate assessments are equity of access and parity of the types of assessments used to demonstrate competencies in either language. Requiring only formal or external assessments of proficiency may disadvantage some populations or language communities when no such assessment is available or affordable. For that reason, providing more than one option to demonstrate the required level of language proficiency contributes to equity of access to the seal. In developing assessment alternatives for the Seal of Biliteracy, access, time, rigor, and ease of implementing the proficiency evaluation process need to be carefully balanced.

Biliteracy refers to having a functional level of proficiency in each language. However, typically, the level of proficiency is not necessarily identical for both languages and is likely to be unequally distributed across domains of use. Furthermore, currently, for many states, qualifying for high school graduation qualifies you for the “English” part of the Seal of Biliteracy, but criteria for the language(s) other than English may not be equal. The criteria for the Seal should be comparable in both languages, that is, the documentation for each language in the Seal of Biliteracy needs to be equitable regardless of being a native speaker of English or a native speaker of another language.

WHAT: Evaluation of Language Proficiency:

The focus of assessing language proficiency should be on the language tasks6 learners need to be able to perform; the tasks can be demonstrated in formal and informal language and via standard or nonstandard varieties. Regardless of the pathway to get to the Seal of Biliteracy language level, the local educational entity (school or district) should identify key milestones for learners to achieve and chart learners’ progress toward the required Seal of Biliteracy proficiency level, through a mix of formal or informal evidence.

The level of proficiency currently required by most states ranges from Intermediate Low to Advanced Low according to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, with Intermediate Mid and Intermediate High as the most common level. Some states have established multiple levels for the seal. The actual standard isdetermined independently by each state (in some states, by the local municipality or school district).

It is important to share criteria and examples with learners so they can reach for the proficiency level required to achieve the Seal of Biliteracy. Assessment should provide rich information and should not be limited only to a pass/fail rating. Any assessment can help identify a learner’s profile (via a formal assessment or through the evaluation of more informal language samples that are compared to proficiency descriptors). Evaluations should identify areas where learners already perform at or beyond the Seal of Biliteracy level and those that need continued development. With knowledge of the profile of how they perform in each mode of communication, learners can focus on improving areas that are below the state’s minimum threshold level for the seal and then re-test to validate improvement toward the eventual achievement of the seal. Schools can help learners understand the characteristics of language at each major milestone of the journey and aim for the level required for the seal. With this knowledge, learners are better prepared to achieve the Seal of Biliteracy.


Learners should be encouraged to document their language journey to achieving the Seal of Biliteracy and beyond. Language learners can demonstrate their level of language proficiency in a variety of ways. Providing multiple options to demonstrate language proficiency opens the Seal of Biliteracy to all learners. Options that states have in place for documenting achievement of the required level of language proficiency include:

  • Assessments

    When an external examination of language proficiency is identified as one option, a comprehensive list of available assessments is very helpful to those issuing the Seal of Biliteracy. External assessments present advantages in terms of validity, reliability, efficiency, and resources of time and personnel. In consideration of equity and access, however, external measures may advantage some learners and disadvantage others, particularly immigrant populations whose children do not have extensive experience and preparation in the use of formal examinations. Another limitation is that external assessments may be based on a standard language variety, thus marginalizing speakers of alternative language varieties.

  • Alternative Measures

    To ensure that all learners have access to the Seal of Biliteracy, alternative means to evaluate language proficiency may be considered. Alternative measures involve using the same descriptive criteria for the required level of proficiency and evaluating the evidence presented. Such measures need to allow for alternative varieties of language, including the characteristics associated with registers of oral language usage. Some states have set up processes to have evidence evaluated by knowledgeable individuals using clear rubrics. Some states have collaborated with outside organizations or businesses to develop assessments of languages of immigrant populations for use within their schools. Some states and districts have found that as a practical matter, using a multiple measures approach was difficult in terms of resources, and they were more comfortable with an available examination.

    Access options may also include the need for alternatives to computer-based assessments when the writing system presents challenges, and writing by hand needs to be a possibility. The use of technologies in assessment should be an option rather than a requirement so as not to disadvantage less affluent districts and families.

    State or districts should ensure access to the same accommodations that a learner would have in any other subject area as identified on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), such as extended time. The state or district, therefore, may need to exempt such students from a particular modality (listening, speaking, reading, or writing) putting more emphasis on the others.

  • Portfolios

    The use of portfolios to credential language proficiency allows for a range of ways that learners may demonstrate language proficiency. The evaluation of the portfolio relies on evaluators verifying the attainment of the Seal of Biliteracy by applying the criteria for the required level of proficiency. Therefore, issues of inter-rater reliability and validity must be considered and addressed. Ideally, two or more examples might be required, including combinations of an external assessment and/or other demonstrations of proficiency. In addition, a portfolio could include evidence in all four modalities as applicable to the language (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) and all three communication modes (Interpersonal, Interpretive, and Presentational).