I’m From the Government and I’m here to Help: The Role of the State Education Agency in the Assessment of Social and Emotional Learning.

By: Beth Herman and Clark McKown

“We are looking for an SEL assessment tool and are wondering if you have any recommendations” she said. This question, commonly asked, seems like a sensible question. After all, we have trained our educators to collect data—copious amounts, in fact, and to engage in “data digs” and to use this information to guide decision making. So, on the face of it, there seems to be nothing wrong with this question.

I responded “What do you want this data to tell you? What is your purpose for this assessment?” her pause, the silence on the end of the phone line, demonstrates the dilemma of SEL assessment.

Assessment can be a magnificent tool and educators have embraced it, but without clarity about how the data will be used, what decisions will (and will not) be made based on results, and a system to review, interpret, and use the data, SEL assessment may not be useful, or may be counterproductive. The Catalyzing Future Directions of SEL Assessment, (2020) Summary Report, identified Data Literacy as one of five Essential Next Phases of Work. Promoting SEL Data Literacy, so critical to the success of social and emotional learning efforts, is a role well suited to state education agencies.

Districts are interested in assessing SEL. However, there are some challenges. Assessing social and emotional competence is different than assessing behavior problems or academic progress. At the same time, many educators think of SEL assessment and behavioral risk screeners as one and the same. As a result, educators often use assessments that are designed for one purpose (screening) to pursue another (continuous improvement). This puts district data consumers in a bind wherein they either use assessment data for a purpose other than they intended or they use assessment data to make decisions for which the assessment is not validated.

Understanding the through line from SEL definition to state SEL standards to program implementation to continuous improvement is essential to collecting and using SEL data in an ethical and effective way. We believe the SEL assessment is in the best position to support teaching, learning, and student outcomes when: (1) competence assessments are designed to measure competencies that are in standards and that are the targets of instruction, (2) SEL assessment data includes measures of competence, climate, and SEL practices, and (3) data are used to support consistent and high-quality practices and monitor growth in student social and emotional competencies.

State education agencies are in the position to create guidance and supports to help schools and districts navigate this SEL assessment model, even in local control states such as Wisconsin. Educators are incredibly busy and must prioritize their time for training. Well intentioned practitioners have little time available to identify and vet good information. Educators fully understand the need to collect and analyze data but without sound information about SEL assessment, most will adopt a behavioral assessment model without fully understanding the inefficiencies of that.

In an effort to address SEL assessment literacy, DPI is creating an online assessment training for school teams using short modules consisting of content followed by team planning.  Many schools and districts have been working on SEL assessment while others are just beginning. This tool will provide flexibility for teams to address SEL assessment at their pace and allows them to access the training at a place most consistent with their current place in the process.

The training is structured around 3 core areas: fidelity assessment, student and adult competence assessment and continuous improvement.

Are you doing what you say  you are doing?

Many schools and district are familiar with fidelity assessment. Those implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports use the Bench Marks of Quality tool to determine their fidelity of universal level supports. This assessment tool, however, is not useful to determine if staff are implementing SEL as intended and if they are doing so competently.  SEL is defined as both the acquisition of skills and the application of skills. Assessing fidelity of direct and intentional instruction (acquisition) and integration of social and emotional learning with academic content and across settings (application) requires different sets of tools. Assessing program fidelity is not an evaluation of staff performance rather it ensures equitable access to SEL instruction and coaching. The focus on fidelity is twofold, ensuring that what is being assessed is actually being intentionally taught and identifying professional development needs of staff to produce quality SEL implementation.

Student and Adult Competence Assessment. What is it good for?

As the conversation shared above illustrates, it is tempting to start the assessment process with a tool rather than a plan. Schools have been assessing behavior for quite a long time and so they adopt a behavioral assessment model for SEL. Inherent in their behavioral models are statistically sound assessment tools, clear criteria of skill mastery, identification of deficits and placement for remediation, all of which are ill advised for social and emotional learning. CASEL’s Measuring SEL Assessment Guide provides 7 steps to SEL Competence Assessment. These steps combined with tools developed by AIR and Dr. McKown create a pathway for developing an SEL assessment approach that is strength based and purposeful. The activities in the assessment training are designed to help teams choose the right assessment tools for their purpose and to determine how the data they collect will be used.

What goes around comes around. Continuous Improvement

Successful implementation of any initiative requires being able to monitor progress and respond to glitches and problems quickly. Continuous improvement (CI) cycles, such as Plan Do Study Act provide a clear, concise, and effective process to review data and make any necessary adjustments to the implementation plan. Many schools and districts have a CI process in place. For these schools the challenge is integrating SEL data into their current practice. The data that is collected in schools can often overwhelm a continuous improvement process. Having a clear and concise plan before assessment can mitigate the data load, ensuring that what is collected is necessary for the purpose.

For schools not currently engaging in intentional continuous improvement cycles, the WDPI assessment training includes specific instruction to conduct plan do study act cycles.

As the graphic illustrates, the 3 core areas for assessment are not achieved in a linear fashion. The process should become multi-directional, with each area informing the others.

Assessing SEL can be a challenge for educators. State education agencies (SEA) can leverage their relationships with national experts and do the leg work in identifying best practices and creating tools to build SEL data literacy. SEAs have a platform to communicate these best practices and to provide on-going guidance as schools and district work to develop an effective, equitable and purposeful assessment process.

Cipriano, C., Taylor, J.J., Weissberg, R., Blyth, D., & McKown, C. (2020) Catalyzing Future Directions of SEL Assessment. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.



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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