Language program offers seal of biliteracy


Colin Henke

Joe Serpa and Juan Sanchez quiz each other for their bi-literacy exam.

Mackenzie Condon, Editor-in-Chief

Students in Advanced Spanish and Portuguese classes at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) are, for the first time in school history, testing for a State Seal of Biliteracy that will appear on their high school diplomas and transcripts. Individual students who earn this seal will have demonstrated proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in both English and an additional language.

Massachusetts legislators passed a bill in 2016 granting the Secretary of Education to administer the State Seal of Biliteracy program, which serves primarily to encourage the study of foreign language, provide higher education and employers with a means to identify candidates with skills of biliteracy, and to “strengthen intergroup relationships, affirm the value in diversity, and honor the multiple cultures and languages of the commonwealth.”

In June 2018, the Massachusetts Board of Secondary and Elementary Education adopted regulations that give criteria for school districts to award the seal on high school diplomas and transcripts, beginning with this year’s graduating class.

In order to demonstrate proficiency in English, students must meet a proficient benchmark score of 240 on the English Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). The state offers a few different testing options in order to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. This spring, MVRHS is offering the STAMP Assessment and the AAPPL Assessment, both of which include reading, writing, listening, and speaking evaluations.

Foreign language department chair Justine DeOliveira said, “We are at the piloting stage, and are using this year’s data to see what type of tests are best for our school, and what year students start feeling comfortable with these tests.”

Students who are testing for the seal have been on advanced language tracks throughout high school. For Spanish, this track starts with taking Honors Spanish II and III during a student’s freshman and sophomore years, Pre-AP Spanish junior year, and AP Spanish senior year.

“Most kids take a language for some part of high school, but I never saw the point in not going into it with the goal of being near-fluent,” said junior Tripp Hopkins. “Being on the advanced Spanish track here has put me on the path to meet that goal of near-fluency, and the opportunity to test for a seal of biliteracy that proves our accomplishment is valuable.”

Senior Lollie Bezahler takes Portuguese. She said, “When people get a college degree in math or English, it declares their proficiency in the subject. Because we have reached a level of near-fluency in high school, this is giving us that opportunity to have evidence for our proficiency.”

Teachers were able to maintain course curricula for the year while also spending some time preparing more specifically for the tests. Junior Imani Hall is in Pre-AP Spanish. She said, “The majority of what we were tested on was content we had built up to over multiple years, so in the time leading up to the test, there didn’t have to be some big change in approach. But with practice we did try to familiarize ourselves with what it would feel like to take each specific test.”

Full testing results will be back in time for this year’s test takers to have the seal affixed to their diplomas. “Sure, you can look at it as something to put on a résumé or college application,” said junior Alex Rego, “but [being biliterate] is something that is crucial in the modern world, and definitely means more than just another thing on paper.”

Junior Mavi DeOliveira, who is currently in Pre-AP Spanish, knows the value of being bilingual. Her first language was Portuguese, and she is also fluent in English. “Being bilingual means being able to interact with more people. You are more valuable in certain workplaces. And with each language you learn, it becomes an easier and more familiar process,” she said. “Because speaking multiple languages is so important, having this recognition for it matters.”