How Do You Measure Social and Emotional Learning?


Mar 28, 2019

Students building something together with tiles, photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

Photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on The Hechinger Report on March 28, 2019.

In the education world, it is often said that what gets assessed gets addressed.

Many educators have questions, though, about how to measure social and emotional learning (SEL) topics like relationship skills and self-awareness, even when they believe such skills should be addressed.

A recent, nationally representative survey (PDF) revealed near-unanimous commitment to SEL among school principals. A similar survey of teachers from 2013 (PDF) showed the same.

As the desire to improve SEL for all students grows, it is increasingly important to measure its effectiveness. But the field has lacked an organized method of identifying, choosing and using the best assessments to measure students' competencies. Two newly developed tools can help.

The SEL Assessment Guide, created by CASEL and the SEL Assessment Work Group, is an online resource that helps educators select and effectively use the most popular SEL student assessments. The guide offers detailed information about the specific SEL competencies measured by widely used assessments, as well as reporting features, training and other implementation supports that are offered by the developers. It is intended to help educators decide which measures are good options for their specific circumstances.

The second tool is the RAND Education Assessment Finder, which lists more than 200 assessments of interpersonal, intrapersonal and higher-order cognitive competencies. This repository of information allows educators and researchers to search different types of assessments to learn what each tool is designed to measure, which demands each assessment places on students and teachers, and what validity and reliability evidence is available.

The Assessment Guide and Assessment Finder are complementary tools. The SEL Assessment Guide provides information most relevant to educators for implementing measures (e.g., training and developer supports) and focuses on measures known to be currently used in practice.

The RAND Assessment Finder features a broader scope in its review, including measures used primarily in research. The Finder also offers more information about the kinds of reliability and validity evidence available for a given measure, based on reviews of published research. For measures that are included in both the Guide and the Finder, both resources link to each other, so that users may benefit from the strengths of both tools.

When used appropriately, data from student SEL assessments can be valuable for several purposes.

The data may be used to identify schools in which especially strong improvement in SEL is occurring; district teams can then learn from these schools about how gains have been achieved.

By enabling school and district leaders to learn from local stakeholders about what's been effective, as well as what challenges they might have faced, SEL assessment data becomes an essential element of successfully implementing SEL in a systemic and sustainable manner.

Quality SEL assessments can enable educators, schools, and districts to build an education system that cultivates equity and develops student agency.

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When used formatively, data on students' SEL competencies may also help classroom teachers with instructional planning and decision-making, allowing them to determine which instructional strategies are working well, which may need to be repeated, and when it might be time to try different strategies.

Ultimately, quality SEL assessments can enable educators, schools and districts to build an education system that cultivates equity and develops student agency. Using SEL data, schools can foster equitable learning environments by revealing disparities in how students' needs are met, identifying systemic root causes for disparities, and acting to ensure all students receive the social, emotional and academic supports they need to succeed.

School staff can also empower students in their own social and emotional development by actively including them in the use of assessments and data to support instruction and learning. Educators could, for example, help students engage in self-reflection about their competencies, or model how data might be used for decision-making and problem-solving. Involving students in this process gives them a sense of ownership over their own learning and likely will increase their motivation, engagement and sense of agency.

Despite these potential benefits, SEL assessments should not be used as the only source of information to guide decisions about SEL programs and practices. Measures of the learning environment, such as school climate surveys, and measures of SEL program implementation provide crucial contextual information to help educators make sense of student SEL assessment results.

Selecting assessments can be daunting, and educators are often left unsure which tool may be right for them and their needs.

This often results in an “analysis paralysis,” with many educators making hasty decisions about assessments or ending up not selecting an assessment at all. However, the decision to dedicate funding and capacity to the collection, analysis and reporting of SEL data sends a clear message to teachers, staff, students, families and the entire community that SEL is highly valued and that promoting students' competencies is a top priority.

Administrators who choose to assess students' social and emotional development, despite limited time and resources, and share these findings with stakeholders, signal that they are committed to creating a culture of SEL and developing the full range of competencies students will need to lead fulfilled, successful lives.

Jeremy Taylor is director of assessment and continuous improvement at CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Laura S. Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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