Washoe County Schools Embeds SEL Assessment in their Climate Surveys

Washoe County Schools uses an SEL assessment embedded in their climate surveys. All students in grades 5-9 and 11 take the survey annually. It is administered online via a link on their website.

Washoe County staff didn’t feel comfortable putting SEL scores on student profiles, so they focus on aggregate reporting. They report on SEL in a simple way: for each SEL domain, they report the percent of students who rated the competencies within that domain as easy or difficult. The data are publicly accessible on their website.

The climate survey reports (including SEL data) are generated by a vendor. PDFs of overall school results are compiled with other data and given to schools.

They developed survey items in part through focus groups with elementary, middle, and high school students. The measure is free and open-source. They pay a vendor for enhanced reporting functionality. Now they have a 40-item and a 17-item version of the instrument embedded in the 40-item instrument. Some other districts use only the 17-item version.

Why did you choose the the measure?

We looked for a new measure of SEL because the one we had been using wasn’t working: students were reporting they were highly competent in SEL domains, so there wasn’t much room for improvement. So, we went in search of a more effective measure and ended up developing one of our own from district SEL standards and developmental pacing guides. There were several reasons we developed the measure in the way we did. We were interested in:

  • SEL as a prevention tool: are students less at-risk of dropping out if they receive SEL?
  • Which competencies were least and most difficult for students to grasp.
  • Assessing a broad range of SE competencies at different developmental stages.
  • Finding ways to get data into teachers’ hands that was easy to interpret and use (instead of giving teachers disaggregated data).

How do you use the measure?

Our schools use data from this measure:

  • To enhance students’ participation in their own education, what we call “student voice.” Students were frustrated because they never saw the results of the surveys they took. Now we hold an annual Student Data Summit. It’s a daylong symposium in which we present data to students and ask them to reflect. Students either facilitate or co-facilitate the summit sessions.

During the sessions, we look at broad district themes. Last year, we looked at relationship skills students struggled with across all schools. We learned through the data that the hardest skill for students is to share feeling with their peers. We asked students to reflect on the data and do some action planning around different competencies: “How can we make those skills easier or teach others those skills?”

We also share results from teacher surveys. For example, we talk about teacher burnout and stress so students understand what their teachers are going through.

  • At SEL professional development sessions, the SEL team presents data in the context of research on the different SEL makes in students’ lives. Teachers also look at grade- and school-level data on the skills hardest for students.
  • As part of a data book: At the beginning of each school years, schools get a data book that includes data on attendance, discipline, academic, climate, and SEL. Schools host an open lab for staff to walk through the data. School climate and SEL staff help them work through their performance plans for the year and create two to three main goals and action steps, including connecting SEL to other indicators of interest (e.g., self-management data and discipline data).  While No Child Left Behind focused entirely on reading and math, these data can round out the information to focus on the whole child.

What additional insights would you share with others considering using a measure to report performance at the aggregate level?

Assessing SEL is important. Data are useless unless people can use them to promote student success for college and career. Behind every data point is a person. If we’re assessing a system or a classroom or a school, then SEL builds the skills we want in our society. If we are using data and there is a story to tell, then SEL competence has to be part of that story.

We think about how SEL relates to school climate. We had been doing school climate surveys a few years before implementing SEL. One of the benefits of SEL using the CASEL framework is that it is broken out into tangible competencies and behaviors. While climate is a more nebulous term that can be difficult to understand and measure, SEL competencies lend themselves to measurement and more disciplined thought about growth. So we think it is helpful to have SEL measures within our climate survey as an indication of school climate.

We are also starting to draw links between staff impressions of climate and SEL implementation. If the conditions improve for school staff, SEL will also improve and student competencies will improve.


Laura Davidson, Ph.D., Director of Research and Evaluation, Washoe County School District

Ben Hayes, Chief Accountability Officer, Washoe County School District

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