Formative Assessment of Social and Emotional Skills

By Tom Vander Ark and Mary Ryerse


One of the unique things about social and emotional learning (SEL) is that skills are acquired through discrete instruction and integrated application. They are discrete in that they can be specifically described, practiced, developed and assessed. At the same time, those skills are best integrated and applied into everything we do and ought to be part of an ongoing development process.

Formative feedback specific to SEL skills is critical for development of these competencies in both direct instruction and integrated application.

Interestingly, SEL skills are (likewise) critical for formative assessment processes across all content areas. When students are involved in giving and receiving feedback (integral to formative assessment) — whether specific to SEL or more broadly across any academic subject — the process requires social awareness, self management, and relationship skills.

In essence,

  • Formative assessment is needed for learning SEL skills
    • in discrete (SEL-specific) learning environments
    • in integrated (across content and work areas) learning environments
  • SEL skills are needed for effective practice of formative assessment of any kind
  • This adds up to a virtuous cycle for SEL and formative. They need and feed each other.

Accordingly, assessing of SEL skills ought include both summative and formative processes (this blog focuses on the latter).

What is Formative Assessment?

Before further outlining the connections between SEL and formative, it is important to define formative assessment. To take us beyond the concept of “assessment for learning,” the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) adopted the following definition of formative assessment:

Formative assessment is a planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes, and support students to become more self-directed learners.

This updated definition increases the emphasis on the role of the students themselves, which aligns with emphasis on self-awareness and self-management.

Formative assessments, particularly of social and emotional skills, can be highly context specific (i.e., collaboration might be stronger in basketball than algebra). Skill progressions are influenced by learning experiences, culture, groupsing, assessments, and tools.  

An analysis of the field of SEL assessment (including formative)  showed progress, but with room for growth and with equity as the north star.

Connecting  Social and Emotional Learning & Formative Assessment

As articulated earlier, SEL and formative assessment go hand-in-hand. This becomes even more evident as one looks at the alignment between the five SEL competencies outlined by CASEL  and the 10 Dimensions of Formative Assessment as outlined by CCSSO. These formative assessment dimensions (see page 12 of FARROP report) speak not only to the teacher’s role in formative, but also to student role.   

  • Self-awareness: CASEL describes this as “the ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations,” which is certainly aligned with the “Student Self-Assessment” dimension of formative.
  • Self-management: Goal setting, self-motivation and organization are included in this SEL competency, and they feed the formative assessment dimension of “Identifying Learning Goals.”
  • Social awareness: This competency, which includes showing respect for others, is critical for the formative dimension of “Student Peer Feedback.”
  • Relationship skills: Communication and teamwork are at the heart of this SEL competency and are important for formative dimensions of developing “Questioning Strategies” and a  “Collaborative Culture of Learning.”
  • Responsible decision-making: With students having a role in the path forward and “Using Evidence to Inform Ongoing Teaching and Learning.”

There is a strong and active role for students in formative assessment, and the role is largely dependent on well-developed SEL skills.  (See a recently published guide, Formative Assessment, The Student Role.)

Why Keep Formative at the Forefront for SEL Measurement?

Measures of social and emotional learning are immature and stages of development are not well defined.  As a result, a focus on formative feedback in SEL domains is more productive than early attempts to quantify growth or aggregate performance gains.

Formative assessment is a daily process, not an event. The process is  designed to move learning forward.  Ultimately, we are even more concerned with helping students grow than we are with knowing where they are on a continuum.

Maintaining a focus on formative SEL feedback encourages teachers to promote a positive culture and advance equity. Teachers recognize their role.

  • Teachers get it. Recently Heather Schwartz shared, “I’m not an expert in assessment, but…. it dawned on me: as a teacher, I know about assessment. I know a lot about it. It’s what we teachers do day in and day out.  It is the act of leaning in to our students to listen and observe…or me, this is what SEL assessment should be all about.”
  • Teachers create a learning culture that establishes trust and advances equity. WestEd is working with teachers who are expert in formative assessment to explore the relationship between formative assessment, student agency and equity.
  • Formative drives a system culture that promotes wise feedback. Lisa Goodnow, Director of Academics and SEL in Austin ISD says, “A prerequisite for formartive is classroom culture of trust and respect. Building on the work of David Yeager from (UT), in Austin, we are intent on ensuring that our teachers provide ‘wise feedback’ to students that is delivered with love and with belief the student’s performance will improve.”

The Path Forward for Formative Assessment and SEL

One example that offers an example for the path forward and is worth noting is Minerva,  a new global HigherEd program designed around learning science. It incorporates social and emotional learning into four big integrated first year courses. There is a rubric for each of the one hundred foundational concepts and habits of success. These skills and habits are assessed through participation in socratic seminars, performance tasks, and project-based learning (location-based assignments).  

Effective practice surrounding formative assessment – and the integration of SEL –  require strong leadership. A practitioner guide, Keys to Success for Formative Assessment, outlines necessary conditions of success. Of course, it will continue to be important to identify  frameworks for SEL, and identify quality measurement instruments that are both both summative and formative assessment.

Formative assessment and SEL feed each other and need each other.



How have you seen formative and SEL go hand-in-hand?

What are formative practices used to explicitly build SEL?



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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