How Student SEL Competence Assessment Can Improve Teaching and Learning

By: Clark McKown, xSEL Labs

A recent survey reported by Ed Week Market Brief indicates that 90% of instructional leaders are considering or have committed to investing in social and emotional learning (SEL). Much of that investment will go towards purchasing SEL programs, such as those listed in CASEL’s program guide. We know from quantitative summaries of many, many program evaluations that, when implemented well, these programs can lead to improved academic, social, and emotional outcomes (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

The program evaluations summarized by Durlak and colleagues carefully measured student outcomes to understand program impact. Outside of the context of this kind of study, however, educators rarely have an opportunity to use high-quality student assessment in conjunction with SEL programs. And even when educators have access to high-quality SEL assessment, they often struggle to use what they learn from assessment data to improve teaching and learning.

In this blog, I will explore ways to use student SEL competence assessment as part of a continuous improvement cycle designed to support effective SEL instruction. First, I will discuss the relationship between the skills your SEL program is designed to impart and the skills your SEL assessment is designed to measure. I will also discuss, with specific examples, how student SEL competence assessment data can inform the way you use SEL programs. I’ll use examples from our elementary school direct assessment, SELweb.

Pair Student Social and Emotional Competence Assessment with a Strong SEL Program

Student assessment data can help you use your SEL instructional programs effectively. Two ingredients are essential:

  1. A universal evidence-based social and emotional learning program.
  2. An SEL assessment that measures the skills that are the focus of your SEL program.

Furthermore, for student SEL competence assessment to increase program effectiveness, the assessment should measure skills that are the program is designed to teach.

Putting together these ingredients is not as easy as it might seem. SEL program developers typically do not bundle student SEL assessments with their programs. Similarly, assessment developers generally do not offer comprehensive programs designed to teach the skills their assessments measure. So it can be hard to know which SEL skill assessments measure what your SEL program is designed to teach.

Figure Out What Assessment Measures the SEL Competencies Your Program is Designed to Teach

I’m going to discuss a specific example to illustrate how to evaluate the match between program content and assessment content. Our SEL assessment, SELweb, is designed to measure children’s ability to understand others’ emotions, children’s ability to take others’ perspectives, children’s social problem-solving skills, and children’s self-control. These skills are part of what CASEL calls “social awareness,” “responsible decision-making,” and “self-management.”

The important question for educators who might use SELweb as their student social and emotional competence assessment is, what is the relationship between what SELweb assesses and what our chosen SEL program is designed to teach? To help our education partners make the connection between what SELweb measures and what their program is teachers, we have developed crosswalks between SELweb and several programs. These crosswalks show the overlap between what each lesson is designed to teach and what SELweb is designed to assess.

Take a look at the example below. Each row is a lesson. The color-coded columns reflect the skills SELweb is designed to measure. Where the content of a lesson reflects one of the skill areas assessed by SELweb, there are check marks—a single check mark means there is meaningful overlap. Two check marks means there is a lot of overlap.

Figure 1. Sample scope and sequence and its relationship to what SELweb assesses

You can see in Figure 1 that the content of nearly every lesson is assessed by one or more SELweb modules. In addition, for each skill SELweb is designed to assess, there are multiple lessons designed to teach that skill. This provides an at-a-glance resource for linking SEL assessment data to specific actions designed to address areas of identified need.

However you get there, a key first step is to find a student SEL skill assessment designed to measure the skills targeted by the SEL program you are using.

How Student SEL Assessment Can Help You Use Your SEL Program Effectively

Imagine a school district has adopted the SEL program from Figure 1 and SELweb as its student SEL competence assessment. So now the question now is, how can the SEL assessment data help make the SEL program more effective?

Well, let’s imagine that the district assessed students in the fall. Their goal in doing so was to use the assessment data formatively, to identify student strengths and needs and use that information to guide instruction. Imagine further that this was the pattern of performance in Ms. Hynes’ class:

Figure 2. Performance of Ms. Hynes students, fall

Each bar shows the percentage of students in her class who performed above, at, below, and well-below average across the skill areas assessed by SELweb. From left to right, the bars reflect: overall performance, emotion recognition, social perspective-taking, social problem-solving, and self-control. Take a moment to review the figure and identify areas of strength and areas of need in this class.

Notice that 69% of students performed at or above average on emotion recognition—this is an area of relative strength. In contrast, fewer students performed at or above average in social problem-solving (50%) and social perspective-taking (56%). With the hypothesis that social problem-solving and social perspective-taking are areas of particular need, how might educators in the district use the scope and sequence from Figure 1 to decide how and what to teach?

In reviewing the scope and sequence from Figure 1, you can see which lessons focus on social problem-solving and which focus on social perspective-taking. Because this group of students may need some extra help in these areas, this teacher might decide to cover those lessons earlier in the school year, and reinforce some of the concepts, strategies, and competencies from those lessons as she teaches other skills.

Teach, Then Re-Assess

In this way the district can use findings from student SEL assessment data to guide how they use their chosen SEL program. Just as you educators use good academic assessment data to decide what skills to emphasize in academic instruction, now they can use student SEL competence assessment to decide lessons and competence areas to emphasize.

After using fall formative data to guide use of the curriculum, the teacher then executed the plan for the remainder of the fall and into the new year, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. SEL assessment and instruction from fall through spring

In the spring, she re-assessed to see what kind of progress her students made. Figure 4 below compares student performance in the fall to student performance in the spring.


Figure 4. Performance of Ms. Hynes’ students, fall-to-spring comparison

Take a few moments to review the figure. What do you notice? What has changed? How much? What do you make of that?

A couple of noteworthy points—a greater percentage of students are at or above average in all of the skill areas assessed by SELweb, and this is particularly true with social problem-solving and social perspective-taking, two areas of need from the fall.

In other words, students appear to have made meaningful progress in response to instruction.

Continuous Improvement Cycles

Imagine you repeated this cycle annually to focus instruction in the fall and to monitor progress in the spring. I believe this kind of continuous improvement cycle has great potential to improve student outcomes.

Some will say that rather than focus on assessing student competencies, educators should assess climate or program implementation quality and intensity. To that I say, in the best of all worlds, educators should use both forms of assessment to make sure that instructional quality is high, intensity is sufficient and focused on student needs, and that students are progressing in response to instruction.


Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405-432.



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.



One Comment

  1. Assessing SEL competencies in Skills-Based is easy. When you assess standard 5, decision making, you are also assessing Responsible Decision Making. When you assess standard 4, interpersonal communication skills, you are assessing Relationship skills: communication. Other examples are available.

    SEL is easily aligned with Skills-Based Health Education. Assessment of the content, skill, and SEL competency are easily achieved.

    SEL approved programs have been approved health education programs for years. We are not two separate disciplines. Please check out my text, Skills-Based Health Education, second edition to learn how to align SEL to Skills-Based Health Education. Mary Connolly

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