Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Assessing Social and Emotional Learning

A review of three types of SEL assessment, with suggestions for ways to collect and report student growth to families.

October 31, 2019
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As more and more states adopt social and emotional learning (SEL) standards, there are more calls for SEL assessment. But the state of the field is unsettled: What we know about SEL intervention and theory derives from research studies that have used a wide variety of methods to assess SEL and related areas. Because the focus of these studies has been to build the research base, the assessments used in them were not necessarily designed for use in practice contexts. 

So the SEL field is at a bit of a crossroads—it is clearly a research-based field that does not have a clear paradigm for student assessment.

In a recent article titled “Challenges and Opportunities in the Applied Assessment of Student Social and Emotional Learning,” SEL assessment expert Clark McKown points out that researchers, assessment developers, educators, and mental health professionals have different priorities with regard to the most important qualities in an assessment. For educators and mental health professionals, the priority is to find practical, cost-effective measures that can predict students’ difficulties, as well as identify their SEL strengths. Since the primary foci for researchers and test developers are psychometrics and internal validity, it is no surprise that many practitioners have reservations about current SEL assessments.

Reviewing SEL Assessment Systems

Let’s take a look at three ways to assess students’ SEL.

Self-assessment: Asking students (third grade and up) to assess their own SEL presumes that they have the perspective-taking skills and self-awareness to accurately monitor their own SEL and then accurately report it. Even when self-report is relatively convenient, students tend to try to guess what answer teachers want to hear. When the teacher is asked to provide ratings, the key issue is how much inference the ratings require, or allow, outside of what a teacher directly observes. Sometimes rating items ask the teacher to rate students’ empathy, for example. This is challenging because empathy is a personal feeling that may be hard for teachers to infer. Plus, expressions of empathy vary developmentally.

Scoring simulated scenarios: Direct SEL assessments use game-like scenarios to pose challenging interpersonal tasks or simulated situations to students and track how they respond. Some assessments ask students to look at faces and infer what feelings are being expressed; others post illustrated or video vignettes and ask students to respond to questions about characters’ intentions, what they did or might do next, and the consequences of these choices. But these direct assessments may not account for age or culture, and because they are simulated they lack authentic context.

Observational: There is an observational system in use for assessing SEL called CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System). McKown notes that CLASS assessments bring outsiders into the classroom, and this may prompt “best behavior” by both students and teachers. Further, CLASS variables are not equally linked to all SEL skills and approaches to SEL intervention, nor are they applicable to all age levels. Further, children may try to infer the answers that adults want, and these perceptions are influenced by local factors, including culture and context.

It’s important to note that educators are typically not trained to know how most SEL assessment scores (from outside tests and systems) map onto instructional guidance. In addition, schools do not usually prioritize time for systematic review and discussion of data related to SEL, or school culture and climate. Without these discussions, it is hard to understand the instructional implications of what the data reveal for these types of SEL scoring.

Integrating SEL on Report Cards

There is nothing more accessible as an assessment system than traditional report cards. For example, in elementary schools, caregivers and students are typically given feedback from the teaching staff—usually quarterly—about important behaviors. This feedback leads to subsequent planning, particularly about areas in need of improvements.

Given the importance of social and emotional learning, it makes sense to include these dimensions as part of this regular feedback. Indeed, it would formalize the reality that teachers are in fact always observing various SEL-related aspects of student behavior and incorporating these impressions into their overall grading assessments.

Three steps to consider before formalizing SEL student data on reports cards:

  1. The staff determine which SEL skills or character virtues they want to focus on.
  2. Each skill or virtue must be defined behaviorally at each grade level and in that school’s context (what will that skill look like?).
  3. The staff design criteria that align to the focus skills and virtues for each grade level.

Collecting SEL Data in the Classroom

For each skill, at each marking period a teacher can identify the skill level most characteristic of a student, and a profile can be created, or each SEL skill can be rated on a three-point scale, relative to a student’s current grade or age level (see this grade-level-specific, three-point criteria for an example). Because behavior can be contextual, it’s important to have at least two assessors who see a student regularly, and in different kinds of situations.

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