Voices in Education

Testing What Isn’t Taught and the Potential Consequences on Identity Formation
Emergent bilingual learners are accustomed to involuntarily taking many high-stakes tests in English, but a new policy asks them to voluntarily take a proficiency test of their home language, regardless of whether they received any instruction in school in this language. The Seal of Biliteracy (SoBL) is a policy adopted in forty-three states that originated in California in opposition to English-only legislation and from a desire to change deficit-based views of bilingualism. The program recognizes students who graduate high school bilingual and biliterate and was designed to serve as a clear symbol to colleges, universities, and employers that an individual is proficient in two or more languages. Each year, more and more institutions of higher education award credit for SoBL attainment, paving pathways to higher education for students who may not have previously had the opportunity to enter college with any credit and decreasing the cost of a degree.

As one of the first policies in the United States to broadly promote bilingualism and biliteracy, the SoBL has many potential benefits. The policy encourages students to learn an additional language in school. It also encourages students from homes where other languages are spoken to learn, maintain, and further develop that language. The SoBL has the potential to change how languages are taught and tested in schools and to send the long overdue message that the US educational system recognizes multilingualism as an asset and values other cultures.

However, as with any education policy, there are also concerns. Because of its voluntary nature and lack of federal or state funding, some criticize the SoBL policy for more often recognizing the bilingualism of students who learn a language other than English in school rather than at home. In my article, I also raise the question of how asking students to take a test of their home language, a test that may or may not be valid and reliable for a particular language or dialect, might impact their identity formation. While the decision to voluntarily take an additional test in school is certainly not easy, it seems particularly complex and personal for emergent bilingual learners, for whom the tests might label them as not proficient in their home language. This decision is further complexified when considering that most students do not have the opportunity to take the tests required by the SoBL until their senior year of high school, when no time remains to bolster proficiency.

To investigate what factors influenced students’ decisions to take or not take the seals tests, I conducted focus group interviews in two schools with diverse student populations in Minnesota, a state with a strong SoBL policy. The focus groups were composed of students, both who had chosen to take the seals test and who had chosen not to, and who came from homes where languages such as Hmong, Karen, Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese were spoken.

Some students chose to take the seals test because they were excited by the opportunity to finally use their home language in school, suggesting years of subtractive schooling in which home languages were ignored rather than fostered. Not surprisingly, most of the students lacked confidence in their ability to pass the seals tests; however, some chose to take the test anyway while others chose not to. Those who chose not to described intergenerational conflict at home and expressed fear that they might fail the test and disappoint their parents. Others who chose to take the test expressed the desire for proof of their home language abilities that they felt earning the SoBL would provide—proof for themselves, for their families, and for future employers. All students firmly believed in the power of the tests to confirm or disconfirm their home language abilities, despite knowing little about them.

I conclude with two questions: Will continued and sustained implementation of the SoBL policy change the ways that languages are taught and tested in US schools? How can we protect and promote students’ identities as members of their home language and culture when implementing the SoBL?

About the Author: Kristin J. Davin is an associate professor of foreign language education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of “Critical Language Testing: Factors Influencing Students’ Decisions to (Not) Pursue the Seal of Biliteracy” in the Summer 2021 issue of Harvard Educational Review.