Stop and think before you act: Are you ready to assess?

By: Jessica Newman, American Institutes for Research


I think there are a few things we can all agree on: (1) ensuring youth develop key social and emotional competencies is a fundamental part of education, (2) safe and supportive spaces are critical to those efforts, and (3) doing this work takes motivation and capacity. Cue the cheers of solidarity and consensus, right? And assessment is a useful tool that can help us understand how we are doing but here’s the thing: we so often start at the beginning of this list (#1 measure youth competencies) without first thinking about whether and how we are creating the right conditions (#2) or if we were even ready to start implementing a new thing in the first place (#3).


In 2015, we launched the first edition of Ready to Assess, a suite of resources including a brief, decision tree, and tools index that was designed to help educators, practitioners, and policymakers decide whether and how to assess social and emotional learning and development. While we were not the only ones synthesizing the myriad tools available, the Ready to Assess suite was unique in that it covered multiple settings (e.g., classroom, out-of-school, postsecondary) and developmental periods (early childhood through workforce). The suite was also designed to speak to what we saw as an emerging (and, to be honest, slightly worrisome) trend of assessing youth social and emotional competence in ways that were potentially unnecessary, overly burdensome, or otherwise inappropriate. We encouraged everyone to stop and think and to then select the best assessment tool based on their purpose, goals, and capacity.


Almost five years later and the field has witnessed tremendous growth in how we think about SEL and what we know is effective. At the CASEL SEL Exchange last month, I was struck by how the conversation has expanded. Where the focus was once on the competencies young people develop as a result of engaging in effective SEL, there is now rich discussion around the unique contexts and conditions that underpin the process of SEL. These conversations align with what we hear in the field and in the types of supports we provide to our partners. We spend a lot of time helping educators and practitioners ensure they are ready to support SEL and that they understand and can implement effective SEL practices. We are seeing much more attention to the environments young people experience and what the adults are doing/providing/creating, with less emphasis on whether young people developed certain competencies as measured by a single instrument. This is not to say that social and emotional competence assessment is not valid or important, rather that there are steps that are important to address, measure, and improve (get “right”) first.


We recently revised Ready to Assess to reflect this thinking. Where we were once saying “Stop and think before you pick a social and emotional competence assessment,” we are now encouraging our readers to ask critical questions like “What are the conditions like for engaging in this work?” and “Will they support the kind of outcomes we are trying to achieve?” because we have seen the value in answering those questions first. While things are not always linear, there is a logic to engaging in this work effectively (see our “logic model” at the end of this blog) and it is our goal to help people use assessment as a tool to support and continuously improve their SEL efforts. The new edition of Ready to Assess now highlights a more robust set of factors to consider when making decisions. We also updated and expanded the tools index to include measures of conditions for learning (i.e., climate, implementation, and quality) and newly developed social and emotional competence measures (e.g., performance-based assessments, measures for older youth).


When a new report, Ready to Lead, came out from CASEL and colleagues the other week, it was exciting. The report highlights key findings from a survey of principals and those findings demonstrate strong enthusiasm and support for SEL across the country. But the report also highlights a persistent challenge that needs our attention: the utility and reliability of SEL assessments. The principal survey focused on measures of youth social and emotional competence and findings suggest while most principals (nearly three quarters) feel that social and emotional competence should be assessed, a much smaller percentage of principals (around a quarter) think we can do these assessments accurately and less than half find them to be useful (Atwell & Bridgeland, 2019). This suggests that there is more work to be done and I would add that perhaps part of that work also involves reframing how we think about assessment, including what we measure and how we measure it.


It has always been our goal to help people stop, think, and make the best choices for their efforts. Ultimately, if you can use multiple measures to understand and ensure readiness, optimal learning conditions, and social and emotional competence, using the data together can help you derive the most meaning from your SEL efforts. Sometimes this is possible, and sometimes that is unrealistic. As you think through your assessment efforts in alignment with your SEL practice, here are a few reasons to consider assessing readiness and/or conditions for learning before or in addition to social and emotional competence:


  • SEL works best when it is contextually relevant and culturally competent – focusing on readiness and/or learning conditions can help to ensure SEL efforts are aligned and will be most effective.
  • Educators and practitioners have a lot more control over the learning conditions (that they create) than whether young people develop specific competencies (which is influenced by a number of factors beyond their control).
  • If and when SEL efforts need improvement, readiness and/or learning condition measures may help to understand where and how to focus.
  • Focusing on readiness and/or learning conditions can help to understand and strengthen what is effective when things are going well.



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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