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Students Earn Credits for Languages They Know

Many students entering U.S. schools with the ability to speak a language other than English, are told that this is not an asset. Michele Anciaux Aoki explains how this is no longer the case in Washington state.

by Michele Anciaux Aoki

Suppose every home turned on a faucet and let clean water run through the drain, out to the sewer for hours each day? We'd think it was a terrible waste and an unacceptable practice.

Yet this is what American schools do year in and year out by ignoring the great asset, "the fresh water" that flows through their classrooms each day. This asset is the incredible linguistic capacity of students who have arrived in our schools from other countries or who can communicate in the languages of their families and heritage communities.

The research on the benefits of bilingualism is growing day by day, but our educational systems have been slow to convey those messages to families, many of whom have been told by teachers, doctors, and other people they trust that the most important thing they can do is speak English to their children all the time (as if the only way to master English is to forget any other language they know). One teacher told a parent of a 3rd grader that there was no point in teaching her daughter Russian because she'd never earn high school credits for it (as if earning credits was the main reason for learning, or maintaining, another language).

That argument is now dead in Washington state. In 2010 the State Board of Education, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Washington State School Directors' Association disseminated a model policy and procedure for awarding Competency-Based Credits in World Languages to students who demonstrated proficiency across skills, in a language other than English. Since then, over 3,000 students have participated in Washington World Language Assessment Days and qualified for up to four Competency-Based Credits in over 40 languages, from Amharic to Vietnamese.

The response to this opportunity for students to earn credits has been enormous. As part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant for the Road Map World Language Credit Program, seven very diverse districts in South King County (including Seattle) received funds to introduce or expand the program in 2012. While the districts were concerned at first about how to get the word out to students, pretty soon their main concern became how to provide enough testing days because the demand from students was so high. In March 2014, the partners in the Road Map World Language Credit Program were given the Collective Impact Award by the Road Map Project Awards for their work in building a system for crediting bilingual high school students.

Based on test results in 2012-2013, over 1,600 students participated in testing statewide and all but 2% qualified for one or more credits. Ninety-two percent of students earned enough high school credits (two or more) to satisfy college admissions requirements for four-year colleges in the state and 40% qualified for four credits (the maximum number awarded through the Competency-Based Credits program).

In 2014, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill to implement the State Seal of Biliteracy. Over the next few months, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will convene a review committee to recommend the final criteria for the award. The bill specifies that "[t]he criteria must permit a student to demonstrate proficiency in another world language through multiple methods including nationally or internationally recognized language proficiency tests and competency-based world language credits awarded under the model policy adopted by the Washington state school directors' association."

When Governor Jay Inslee signed the State Seal of Biliteracy bill into law on March 27, 2014, a group of high school students from One America came to celebrate and thank the governor and the legislators who sponsored the legislation. One student had just received his test results packet from his Competency-Based Credits testing in Federal Way School District, and he proudly displayed his certificate and letter recommending him for four competency-based credits, which will likely earn him a Seal of Biliteracy when he graduates high school next year.

Washington is proud to have joined the growing list of states (starting with California, New York, and Illinois) that have introduced the Seal of Biliteracy and are helping America "turn off the faucet" and begin to recognize the wealth of linguistic capacity that our students bring to school with them every day.

Dr. Michele Anciaux Aoki is the World Languages and International Education Program Supervisor, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington state. 

Follow Michele and Asia Society on Twitter.

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