The Appropriate Roles of Assessment in Social and Emotional Learning

By Paul LeBuffe

Research has clearly demonstrated that social and emotional competence is critical to students’ success in school.  In the most widely cited study, Durlak and colleagues reviewed 213 studies and reported that school-based programs that promote students’ social and emotional competence result in an average 11 percentile point gain on academic achievement tests. This and similar research findings have led several states and local school districts to adopt social and emotional learning standards.

These standards, in turn, have created interest in assessing social and emotional skills in students, which is reflected in the most recent federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The new law requires that states develop an accountability system that encompasses both measures of academic achievement and measures of other factors such as school quality or students’ social and emotional competence that contribute to academic success. The use of these non-achievement measures in school and state accountability systems is new and has resulted in debate regarding the appropriate role of measures of students’ social and emotional competency.   As an author of several assessments of children’s social and emotional competencies, I suggest the following as appropriate uses of these measures that will contribute to student success and school systems achieving their goals.

The most important use of these assessments is identifying the individual social and emotional strengths and areas of growth opportunities for each student and then using this information to guide instruction to ensure that each student develops the full set of social and emotional skills that are needed for success in school. Knowing that these skills are essential, we have an obligation to the students and their parents to assess these skills and provide needed instruction.

A second important use is to document progress as students attain these skills.  Periodic assessment over the school year can provide important feedback to teachers and students that they are acquiring these skills. If students are not making the expected gains, teachers will have an opportunity to modify their strategies to achieve better success in the remainder of the year. This approach, known as “Response to Intervention,” has been widely used with core academic subjects.  Why would we not take a similar approach to ensure success in the social and emotional domain?

A third valuable use is to identify “teachable moments” to help students better understand the nature of social and emotional competence and the expectations of teachers. At times, different raters may give different answers to the same item on a social and emotional assessment.  For instance, a student may rate himself as “frequently” contributing to group efforts (an item on one of our assessments) because he always tries to listen respectfully to and encourage other group members.  The teacher may rate the same student as “rarely” on the same item because (s)he is looking for sharing of opinions or contributing to discussions.  This provides a wonderful opportunity to clarify what “contributing to group efforts” means in the classroom.  An effective measurement tool offers not only a lens for noticing and reinforcing desired behaviors but also establishes a shared language for communication with students, parents, and professional peers.

Which brings us back to the issue of school accountability.  Like many other professionals, I do not yet support the use of scores per se on measures of social and emotional competence as an accountability measure for individual students, teachers, or schools.  However, given the importance of these skills, it is reasonable to hold schools accountable for having systems in place to measure the current skill set of their students, to use that information to guide instruction in developing these important skills, and to show progress at the global level that each individual school, the district, and the state are “moving the needle” and having success at ensuring that all students have a level of social and emotional competence that will enable them to be successful.  In a New York Times editorial, Kate Zernike cited the adage, “what’s measured gets treasured.”  In the case of social and emotional skills, I would suggest the alternative, “what’s treasured should be measured.”



Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more that assessing social-emotional competence is critical. However, when you state that instruction should “ensure that each student develops the full set of social and emotional skills that are needed for success in school”, it is critical to spell out (1) what these skills are — which can vary by age and grade within a school , (2) what competences can be taught, which will depend in part on age, maturation and any known disability, (3) expectations for change/growth over time, and (4) time available to both teach such competences across different competencies. Without spelling out the details of each of these components, it will be difficult to achieve success.

    • I agree on the importance of using a response to intervention approach toward developing social emotional competencies for each student. Ascribing toward a common set of skills, such as CASEL’s 5 competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making) that could be developmentally taught and measured, using a coordinated rubric that is shared with students, parents and school staff, may be a good start. Providing tiered interventions to bring students up the rubrics toward the expected standards in each of the 5 competencies would also be important. Measurement may include student self-report but also needs to have the component of teacher and parent feedback which may help to bridge perspectives toward the competency standards. That practice is, in itself, a growth opportunity for students to strengthen all 5 competencies.

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