State’s Support of Social Emotional Learning Assessment: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

By Heather Hirsch, member of our National Practitioner Advisory Group

Schools and districts across the country are looking to implement evidence-based SEL, and more of them are turning to state education agencies (states) for technical assistance. At the same time, states are beginning to develop social emotional learning (SEL) competencies, standards, or learning goals (see An Examination of Frameworks for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Reflected in State K-12 Learning Standards). As states work to support more school and district teams, states are also struggling to help school and district teams understand the appropriate uses of SEL assessment. State agencies can support these efforts in a number of ways.

Last week 25 state teams, plus Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., gathered in Chicago for the fifth meeting of CASEL’s Collaborating States Initiative (CSI). Minnesota’s participation in the CSI over the past three years is a key strategy in our support of effective implementation of evidence-based SEL. At the beginning of our CSI participation, stakeholders in Minnesota spent over two years developing a K-12 social emotional learning framework, learning goals, and implementation and assessment guidance. Minnesota’s assessment guidance is designed to help schools and districts determine the appropriate uses for and the availability of SEL assessment tools.

In response to growing concerns about school safety and bullying in schools, the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act was signed into law in 2014. This law established the School Safety Technical Assistance Center within the Minnesota Department of Education and tasked our team with supporting schools, providing leadership for bullying prevention, and school climate improvement work done throughout the state. The law encourages schools and districts to implement safe and supportive school programming. The law explicitly calls for schools and districts in Minnesota to use evidence-based SEL to prevent and reduce bullying. As a state agency, we believe that building students’ social and emotional competencies provides them with the knowledge and skill they need to deal with difficult situations they face, either academically or socially, which leads to less aggressive behavior, such as bullying.

SEL is also a hot topic right now in the education field. ESSA and the Nation of Hope Report have sparked conversations and created opportunities for states to connect with schools and districts around implementing and assessing SEL. And as a result, more and more state agencies are grappling with how to support the diverse needs of schools and districts across their states. As part of the CSI, one of the key takeaways that I recommend to state partners is don’t reinvent the wheel. There are several states and national partners leading this work across the country, Minnesota being one of them, with guidance and resources already developed.

Because of the strong connection between SEL and student outcomes (such as attendance, graduation rates, academic achievement, and school climate), states have a vested interest in seeing more schools and districts implementing evidence-based SEL. States also have an obligation to help schools and districts meet all the needs of their students – academic, physical and social-emotional.

Most states see their role as developing guidance and providing technical assistance to help schools and districts meet the needs of their students, and SEL is no different. However, developing guidance that meets the needs of multiple districts makes this a challenge. In Minnesota alone we serve over 340 districts and 130 charter schools, ranging in size from 50 – 33,000 students. There are great national resources including a decision tool from AIR, the recently released comprehensive assessment guide from CASEL, and the SEL assessment guidance Minnesota has developed. This guidance outlines the purpose of SEL assessment as well as the types of SEL assessment such as outcome and process-based assessments.

Districts face a number of challenges implementing evidence-based SEL. One of those challenges is viewing SEL as something else, something over and above what they are already doing for and with students. States can play a key role in helping schools and districts align their plans and guidance for schools. States can use the Nation of Hope report to set a statewide vision that broadens the definition of student success to include social-emotional competence.

Schools and districts also struggle with the limited SEL assessment tools that are available to them. Even when programs or curriculum have assessment tools or fidelity indicators built-in, there are very few curriculums that can work across the district. Often they are geared towards elementary or middle school students and even fewer are geared towards high school settings. This creates the challenge for districts to map multiple curriculum, programs and assessments on top of one another. The RAND Assessment Finder and Harvard Taxonomy project are key resources designed to address this challenge.

Continuing to support schools and districts as they expand their SEL implementation is going to be a key focus of states in the coming years. Following the direction of the states and organizations who have already developed guidance on SEL implementation and assessment allows for quicker scaling of SEL efforts by states across the country.

What are the ways your state education agency has, could, or should support statewide efforts around implementation of SEL and SEL assessment?

How can you organization align with states guidance to make direct connects for your school or district partners?


About the Author: Heather Hirsch, MPH is a School Climate Specialist with the School Safety Technical Assistance Center, Minnesota Department of Education. Heather’s work for MDE addresses school climate improvement, bullying prevention and social emotional learning. She travels across the state providing training and consulting with schools and districts on best practices in those areas. She has been certified by McGrath Training Systems, Inc. to provide training on the McGrath Bullying and Harassment: Minimize the Risk Curriculum. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health, and a School Climate Leadership Certificate from the National School Climate Center. She is a South Washington County District School Board member, and serves on the board of a non-profit, AARP Experience Corp – Twin Cities, aimed at improving literacy and social emotional skills of underrepresented K-3 students. You can contact Heather at



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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