Finding Quality SEL Assessments

By: Dr. V. Scott H. Solberg, Boston University


A few years back I had the privilege of introducing my social emotional learning (SEL) assessments and curriculum at a luncheon held in the Harvard Club, New York City.  After the presentation, a school principal from the Bronx came up to me to share a story.  Initially, he was convinced that our SEL assessments were not valid because the results reported one of their students – who happened to be at the top of her class – was somehow highly at-risk for school failure.  This was inconceivable.  Thankfully, the school counselor followed up with the student and found out she had recently tried to commit suicide.  While her grades and attendance were not suffering, she certainly was.


Too many high need youth are struggling in the United States and so it is no wonder that schools are looking for SEL measures that will help them identify which students need additional support.  “High need” youth is the latest way of referring collectively to youth living in low income settings, racial minority youth, youth with disabilities, and youth in foster care. When choosing among SEL measures, there are important considerations to keep in mind.


  • Are the skills being assessed responsive to Tier 1 SEL curriculum or Tier 2 small group intervention?
  • Are the results of the assessment “actionable,” that is, are you able to identify what SEL skills each student will need in order to thrive?


The first question involves determining whether the assessment is measuring personality traits/dispositions or whether the assessment is measuring “malleable” skills.  Malleable is code for changeable.  When someone indicates that their assessment measures “traits” then one should be cautious because it infers that change is not likely without significant Tier 3 intervention.  Malleable skills such as Bandura’s “self-efficacy” and Deci and Ryan’s “motivation” are examples of malleable skills.  Both offer ample theory and research to show the skills can be effectively improved using Tier 1 classroom SEL activities.


For many years, I have been developing SEL assessments as part of a program called Success Highways.  Success Highways is a package of assessments and curriculum designed to enable high risk youth to develop the resiliency skills needed to thrive in school despite significant life challenges. The SEL skills – academic self-efficacy, academic motivation, stress management, psychological/emotional distress, importance of school, and social support/connections, goal setting, career search self-efficacy, and career decision-making readiness – were selected because each is malleable and there is ample theory describing how to design Tier 1 classroom level curriculum that help students develop these skills.


The Success Highways assessment reports are “actionable” in two ways.  First, the assessment results offer students a personalized profile of their scores in a way that enables them to identify which SEL skills they personally want to address and change.  Second, the school receives a profile of which students they should consider for Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 supports.  The validity of this report is based on a longitudinal study in which we assessed SEL skills of graduating middle school students and tracked their academic performance through high school.  My colleagues and I found that each SEL skill was associated with improving attendance, behavior and course performance and also that key SEL skills combined in such a way as to predict whether a student is at-risk for school failure (Davis, Solberg, deBaca & Hargrove, 2014).


Another way in which the Success Highways package of assessments are actionable is that for middle and high school students, the students personalized SEL results are incorporated into classroom curriculum.  The curriculum helps educators and students engage in authentic conversations as they learn each skill and then use their personalized SEL results for each skill to develop an improvement plan.


Other ways to think about whether the SEL assessments are actionable is to consider if the SEL assessments empower educators to develop a shared perspective regarding what is needed to fully support their students. Similarly, does the assessment information empower students with an understanding and sense of hope that they can develop and master the SEL skills.


It is also important to know whether the SEL assessment has “predictive validity.”  The Bronx Principal is not the first to report concern that our assessment measure was misreporting that their star students were at-risk for school failure.  We have had a number of occasions when follow up lead to finding out that their student was homeless or experienced other traumatic events.  In following students from middle through high school, we found that five key SEL indicators were most highly associated with school success.


  • Do they perceive the importance and value of postsecondary education? Students who are planning for their future are more likely to perceive high school as the means to pursuing their career and life goals.  Within the CASEL framework, this SEL skill can be classified as an example of engaging in Responsible Decision Making.
  • Are they attending because they perceive school as meaningful? This involves a form of autonomous motivation described by Deci and Ryan as part of their self-determination theory. Within the CASEL framework, this SEL skill can be classified as an example of Self-Management.
  • Do they feel confident in being able to fully participate in classroom activities? This involves Bandura’s self-efficacy construct and using the CASEL framework can be classified as Self-Awareness.
  • Are they experiencing high levels of physical agitation? This is another example of Self-Management that falls within a larger context of psychological and emotional distress.
  • Are they experiencing high levels of academic stress? Also related to Self-Management, academic stress involves how much pressure students are experiencing in balancing the myriad of academic and life tasks.


Schools are realizing that while many of our high need youth are able to sit through class, they are not able to reach their true potential unless we are alerted to issues that may be impacting their social and emotional well-being.  The principal from the Bronx and other principals from around the country are finding out that even their most talented students are experiencing trauma.  Selecting SEL assessments with good predictive analytics can help screen students so we can take action in ways that keep them in schools, or even more importantly, so that our school counselors can mobilize the wrap-around supports needed to keep them alive.



Reference: Davis, A., Solberg, V. S., de Baca, C. & Hargrove, T. (2014).  Use of Social Emotional Learning Skills to Predict Future Academic Success and Progress Toward Graduation. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 19, 169-182. DOI:10.1080/10824669.2014.972506;



Dr. V. Scott H. Solberg is Professor of Counseling Psychology and Applied Human Development at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.  In addition to developing Success Highways, he has forthcoming book titled “Making School Relevant with Individualized Learning Plans: Helping Students Create Their Own Career and Life Goals” from Harvard Education Press.



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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