Max Moss started studying Spanish in sixth grade and never stopped. He learned to speak the language, read it and understand conversations. By the time he hit 12th grade, he knew enough to recite 13th-century poetry and write his senior thesis in Spanish.
This week, as he graduates from high school, he will be among the first Maryland students recognized for his linguistic achievement under a new state program.
The teenager and hundreds of others in the state are getting a “seal of biliteracy” with their diplomas for showing high levels of proficiency in English and another language. The idea comes from a national initiative that has picked up momentum, with more than two dozen states and the District of Columbia embracing it during the past six years.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Moss, 18, who graduates Thursday from Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. “It’s nice to be recognized. I took it seven years, and I put a lot of work into it.”
Educators say they hope the recognition sends a broader message about the value of language learning, giving a boost to students who excel in a foreign language as well as those who arrive speaking foreign languages and then learn English.
“It may be one of the game changers that will help us turn the tide in this country and help us focus on raising a multilingual citizenry,” said Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Maryland lawmakers passed legislation to create the program in 2016, and it has taken shape in the intervening months. Seven of the state’s 24 school systems signed on for this graduation season, including those in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. More are expected to follow.
“We see enthusiasm for adding it in other counties,” said Susan Spinnato, director of instructional programs for the Maryland State Department of Education.
With graduations in full swing, the state’s largest school system, in Montgomery, is bestowing the honor on 770 students this year. As many as 1,000 others could also be eligible after graduation as a result of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) test scores that will come out this summer.
“It’s a good number for the first year, and I’m hoping that the numbers will grow exponentially,” said Françoise Vandenplas, the school system’s world languages supervisor.
Vandenplas said the program rewards the hard work of becoming biliterate and underscores the value of native languages. It also may help colleges as they place students in courses, or provide future employers with an indicator of language skills, she said.
To qualify for the honor, students must do well on the state’s standardized English exam as well as language tests approved by the state. On an AP language exam, for example, Maryland requires a score of 4 or 5 on a five-point scale. Criteria for the seal vary by jurisdiction; in Virginia and the District, for instance, AP exam scores must be a 3 or higher.
Gabriella Armonda, 18, who graduates Friday from Northwood High School in Silver Spring, said she only learned of the honor at her school’s senior academic awards night, when she and other students were recognized.
She had started in a Spanish immersion program in kindergarten.
“It means a lot because language is something that has always been important to me,” she said. “I think it will definitely help throughout my life.”
In Prince George’s, 79 students earned the seal of biliteracy this spring and were celebrated at an awards night in May. More could qualify this summer based on AP and IB exam results.
“It’s powerful to speak another language,” said Maria Flores, supervisor of world languages for Prince George’s schools. “That opens new doors for students in job searches and at universities.”
For Makafui Dzeze, 18, valedictorian for the Class of 2017 at Central High School, the seal validates her long experience with French. She started at age 3 in the West African nation of Togo and enrolled in a French immersion school in Prince George’s in fourth grade.
She is one of 13 graduates of the French immersion program at Central High in Prince George’s County. All received the seal.
Dzeze said she views the honor as an accomplishment but says the program needs to be more widely publicized, so that students understand the value of having another language and also know what it takes to earn the seal of biliteracy.
When she told a friend about it, she said, he congratulated her but asked: “What is that?”
Del. Ana Sol Gutiérrez (D-Montgomery) said she pushed for the program for three years and has been heartened by how many students are qualifying right away. “It’s a huge step for recognizing the value of multilingualism,” she said.
Virginia officials say they awarded more than 5,200 seals of biliteracy last year, when their program rolled out.
Suzette Wyhs, world languages supervisor in Loudoun County schools, recalls a national conference in 2009 or 2010 when the idea bubbled up, with California then passing legislation in 2011. The District followed in 2014, then Virginia in 2015.
This year, Loudoun will award more than 200 seals of biliteracy, with many English-language learners qualifying, she said.
“I expect the numbers to go up as the public becomes more aware of this,” Wyhs said, pointing out that the learning goes far beyond vocabulary and sentence formation.
“Students who get to this level of language come to understand the people who speak the language, their practices, their belief systems,” she said. “It really is more than just words. It even changes their thinking and perspective and the way they see the world.”
Other Washington-area school systems have also embraced the program. In Fairfax County, about 3,500 students earned the honor last year. There were also 95 recognized students in Alexandria and 529 in Arlington and 79 in Prince William counties, according to state data.
The D.C. school system started its program in 2014-2015, with 11 students earning seals. This year, 64 qualified, and 11 more could qualify if pending test scores meet the mark.
At Richard Montgomery High, where Moss studied Spanish, 120 students are receiving the honor this year. The school has an International Baccalaureate magnet program that emphasizes global learning and language.
“They were very excited,” said Maria Solernou, head of the world languages department. “They work very hard for many years. It is not easy to read well in two languages, and these exams are not simple. They are very rigorous.”
Moss, who plans to attend Stanford University and hopes to one day work as a doctor, said he would like to continue his language interests with a study-abroad program in a Spanish-speaking country.
“I hope to be fluent in Spanish my whole life,” he said. Language, he said, could shape his career. “I would love to provide medical care in Spanish-speaking areas,” he said. “Even in the United States, there are a lot of people who would benefit from having a doctor who speaks Spanish.”