From Key Skills to Useful Measures: A Review and Inventory

Review and Inventory of Measures of “Soft” Skills

By Laura Lippman, Senior Technical Advisor, FHI360 and Independent Consultant

As the evidence base on the importance of social and emotional skills for fostering multiple positive outcomes grows, international youth development programs increasingly want to focus on developing and measuring those skills (which they tend to refer to as “soft skills” or “life skills,” as those terms are widely used by employers, international youth program funders and implementers, and youth themselves).  But which skills to focus on? And how to measure them? To help these programs focus on the skills that are best bets for fostering success in the workplace, positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes, and reducing violent behavior, USAID funded a series of studies.

The first study systematically reviewed research and interviewed stakeholders to identify  the top 5 key skills that foster workforce success  Common terms and definitions for skills were developed from the varied terms and definitions in the literature in order to synthesize the strength of the research across fields. Then, using the same methodology and definitions, the second study, supported by USAID’s YouthPower action project, extended the review to the fields of sexual and reproductive health and violence prevention  Happily, three skill groups received high levels of support across all three outcome areas, demonstrating their importance:  Positive Self-Concept, Self-Control, and Higher Order Thinking Skills.  Social skills were found to be critical across the two outcome domains of workforce success and violence prevention, while Communication skills were found to be critical in preventing violence and for positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes.  Empathy and Goal orientation were among the top 5 skills needed to prevent violence and promote sexual and reproductive health, respectively (see diagram).

Once the key skills that would be the best bets across fields were identified, the third report in the series, also supported by USAID’s YouthPower Action, conducted a review of measures of these and the original 10 skills receiving the most support for fostering workforce success.  We reviewed 300 instruments, both domestic and international, and also created an inventory of instruments that can be used by schools and programs searching for good measures of each skill or entire surveys:  In order to make it into the inventory, the measures needed to have been validated with youth and to be free with open access.  One useful feature of the inventory is that all the measures included are coded according to both the developer’s skill nomenclature, as well as the common skill terms we developed for this project to deal with the varied terminology across studies, so it is easy to search for measures by skills of interest to the program or school. We then scored the measures according to criteria of interest to youth development programs, including validity, reliability, evidence of use by international youth development programs, evidence of relationships with positive outcomes, and ease of administration. We identified ten instruments, both domestic and international, that met these criteria, and which measured all or most of the key skills identified in key skill reports (see the list of ten and how they scored on page 46 of the report). Some were school-based and have been used for group assessments, some were used for individual assessments, and some for program evaluations.

The field has much to do to meet the needs of international and domestic programs and schools. For example, the vast majority of measures in the inventory use student self-report, which are known to suffer from some forms of bias.  In addition, most measures use response scales that are not refined enough to detect change over time, especially for short durations of many international programs.  The validity and reliability of measures used in many settings is not consistently reported.  Our common terminology and definitions of skills across studies, our synthesis of the research across fields to identify key skills, and our review of existing measures of these skills are offered as tools to build the evidence and the science of measurement of these key skills across fields.


What about the top skills in each area and their overlap – or non-overlap – is surprising to you?

Given this work, what other questions would you like to see addressed?

What difference, if any, would come out in the list of skills if it was just about what U.S. schools should focus on?


These studies were made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), under task order contract number AID- OAA-TO-15-00003, YouthPower Action under IDIQ contract number AID-OAA-I-15-00009, YouthPower: Implementation and  Workforce Connections:  AID-OAA_LA-13-00008.


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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  1. A couple thoughts:
    -We need to work at transforming existing view of SEL skills as anything “soft”, which connotes something other than essential… The evidence is in- SEL is crucial to school, life, and workplace success in the 21st century.
    -In 2014, Child Trends developed a valid, reliable tool for teachers to use in measuring social and emotional skills for 3rd graders and up. Uses teacher- as well as student self-report. Easy to administer. Tracks change over time. Open access. I am planning to use it in my dissertation examining social and emotional skills as possible causal factor of academic achievement on high stakes tests. Can be found here:
    Scarupa, H. J. (2014). Measuring elementary school students’ social and emotional skills: Providing educators with tools to measure and monitor social and emotional skills that lead to academic success. (No. 2014-37). 7315 Wisconsin Avenue Suite 1200W, Bethesda, MD 20814: Child Trends.
    I am looking for the best tool. So far, this is it. But your blog post will have me analyze the California tool… Thanks!

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