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On The High School Diploma: A 'Bilingual' Stamp Of Approval?

LA Johnson/NPR

In the 1920s, Aurora Orozco crossed over from Mexico to Texas — a child of African descent who spoke not a word of English. She was an uneasy transplant.

Many years later, in an essay published in 1999, she recalled attitudes towards students who were caught speaking Spanish in school: "My teacher, Mrs. White, would make me stay after class. With a red rubber band, she would hit my poor hands until they nearly bled."

Today's students don't have it so bad. Texas recently started offering a "State Seal of Biliteracy." It recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in one or more languages in addition to English.

Several states now offer these seals. Indiana passed a bill last week that would make that state the ninth to do so. Eight other states are considering joining the list.

"I think this is something that increases the intelligence of a student and an individual," explains Dennis Kruze, a Republican state senator who authored the bill.

California was the first state to adopt a seal of biliteracy, in 2011. A big reason was to reverse the stigma that kids like Aurora Orozco once felt — and to recognize and reward the hard work that goes into learning a second language.

The statewide push was modeled after a 1992 effort in Glendale, Calif., a city with a potpourri of cultures and languages.

Californians Together Pathway Award for Middle School.
/ Californians Together
Californians Together
Californians Together Pathway Award for Middle School.

Is It Necessary?

Nationwide, a record number of Americans speak a second language, according to the Pew Research Center. And that's not just because 62 percent of Hispanics are bilingual: Spanish and Chinese are the most-spoken language among non-Latinos in the country.

In an increasingly bilingual country, does a seal really matter?

Beyond shedding a more positive light on bilingualism, proponents say the seal allows employers to distinguish between people who can get by in another language from those who are truly fluent.

Each state determines who gets a seal, but several national language organizations have created guidelines. Recommendations include: passing the AP exam, the International Baccalaureate exam, or the Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency.

Today, 74 percent of students who earn these seals are bilingual in Spanish. More than 165 school districts are currently granting the award.

One big question about the value of the seals is whether employers care about them. UCLA professor Patricia Gándara explored that question a 2014 study.

She surveyed 289 California employers, and found that they overwhelmingly prefer hiring a multilingual person. And, they said, they would favor someone with a certification that proves it.

Kruze, the Indiana bill's author, says the seal goes beyond the obvious choice of speaking Spanish and English.

"A lot of businesses want to know, 'Do you know Chinese? And how do I know you know?' And you can have your certificate as verification."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.