By: James DiPerna, Pennsylvania State University; Christopher Anthony, University of Florida; Stephen Elliott, Arizona State University
As SEL assessment developers working with schools across the country, we begin with two observations about SEL assessment.
First, initiating and scaling up a systematic approach to SEL assessment is challenging. Although teachers and administrators openly acknowledge the importance of promoting social-emotional learning, they often (and understandably) express hesitation toward implementing SEL initiatives due to concerns regarding time. In our experience, teachers worry that devoting time to SEL will take time away from students learning the academic skills emphasized on state tests. To further complicate matters, many teachers already express being overwhelmed by the amount of academic assessments they are asked to administer, interpret, and apply within the context of their classroom. Just ask any third grade teacher what is happening in their classroom during the month of April. With a likely sigh, “state testing” will be the response. Against this backdrop, teachers and administrators worry that SEL-focused initiatives will, like so many other initiatives in schools today, become too focused on amassing numbers than enhancing students’ learning experiences.
Despite these challenges, our second observation is one we suspect most readers of this blog will agree with – that high quality SEL assessment is essential for effective SEL programming. Without high quality assessment, SEL programming may be well intentioned and possibly effective, but systematic progress will be hard to achieve and sustain. Imagine a world in which reading teachers completely discarded literacy assessments. Many children would still learn to read, yet the systematic promotion of literacy would suffer. Identifying implementation problems, necessary curricular changes, and specifying instructional goals would be haphazard at best. Such a loss would most negatively affect struggling students as teachers and parents would be unaware of the extent of their difficulties or the effectiveness of remediation efforts. An undefined or unmeasured problem is easier to miss.
So, how do we move forward in light of these two key – and somewhat opposing – observations? Do teachers and students need to simply “roll up their sleeves” and complete intensive SEL assessments that parallel those assessments already in place for academics? Should we just ignore or minimize the use of SEL assessments, focus on promotion, and hope for the best? We believe there is a promising third alternative; however, it requires those of us involved with the development of SEL assessments to think beyond traditional psychometrics. Specifically, we need to think about the costs associated with implementation and use of SEL assessments.
When most of us think about costs, we tend to think of the dollars and cents paid for an item or service. Such tangible costs play a critically important role in determining if a school or district – which often have very limited (if any) funds allocated in their operating budgets for SEL-related efforts – ultimately can afford to adopt an SEL assessment. There is another “cost”, however, that may not be as immediately apparent as the price paid for an assessment, and we would suggest that this cost is equally important to addressing the current challenges of implementing SEL assessments at scale in schools today. That cost is time. Specifically, we are referring to the time required to administer, collect, score, store, interpret, and apply SEL assessment findings. In our work with educators and administrators, time is the “cost” that most often is first mentioned as a barrier to SEL assessment and intervention programs. Unfortunately, time is one of the last variables considered in the development of assessments – SEL or otherwise. One might even argue that time, or more specifically, assessment efficiency, has been unintentionally sacrificed by rigid adherence to certain psychometric standards/indices (e.g., high reliability as evidenced by high internal consistency).
As a result of the feedback we have received from teachers and administrators, our team has focused our efforts on how advanced psychometric techniques, such as Item Response Theory, can be used to minimize SEL assessment length with relatively minor sacrifices in measurement precision. We (e.g., Anthony, DiPerna, & Lei, 2016; Anthony & DiPerna, 2017) and others (e.g., Moulton, von der Embse, Kilgus, & Drymond, 2019) have used these approaches to create brief forms of existing social and behavioral measures with minimal losses in reliability and validity. Currently, we are using this methodology to develop a brief, CASEL-aligned, version of the SSIS SEL Scales (Elliott & Gresham, 2017). Despite this initial work, there remains significant need in the field of SEL assessment to maximize measurement efficiency while maintaining appropriate levels of reliability and validity relative to the purpose(s) for the assessment. Achieving this goal will address one of the major barriers to implementing SEL assessment systems for both informing and evaluating SEL programming in schools. Let’s utilize our best measurement science to create efficient SEL assessments rather than impose more burden on students and teachers – it’s about time!
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.