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February 1, 2018

Accounting for the Whole Child

Educators increasingly recognize the role of students' social-emotional skills in academic outcomes. The next step is to figure out how to foster and measure them.


While we all want our kids to excel in math, science, language arts, and social studies, those skills alone aren't enough for success in our ever-changing 21st century society and economy. Students must also develop essential capabilities like resiliency, adaptability, and collaboration that equip them for the demands of the world today. They also need empathy and social awareness to be good citizens and neighbors, to contribute to our communities, and to sustain a flourishing democracy.

The vast majority of educators believe that such social-emotional skills should be on schools' agendas. However, if one looks at how education systems have historically defined student success, social-emotional skills haven't been a part of the picture. Education policymakers have placed almost exclusive emphasis on standardized academic test scores in core academic subjects as the measure of student success.

Fortunately, change may be on the horizon. A growing number of districts and networks of schools are now administering social-emotional skill assessments, empowering educators to make informed decisions about how best to help students develop these capabilities. These efforts can potentially be strengthened under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which provides education leaders with greater flexibility to define student success. ESSA establishes various pathways for states and local districts to design innovative school improvement plans and fund social-emotional measures and programs. With all of these changes underway, educators have new opportunities to advance bold, data-informed approaches to teaching and measuring social-emotional learning.

The research base on the value of social-emotional skills is robust and compelling. Studies have shown that students with strong social-emotional skills have greater academic achievement both at the K–12 level and in higher education (Dweck et al., 2014; Farrington et al., 2012; Gabrieli, Ansel, & Krachman, 2015; Heckman et al., 2006). In one study that measured young peoples' levels of self-control, 95 percent of the participants in the top quintile of self-control went on to graduate from high school, compared with 58 percent of those in the lowest quintile (Moffit et al., 2011). And, even when controlling for other predictors of academic success such as socioeconomic status and early academic ability, research reveals that higher levels of social competence in kindergarten have predictive value for high school and college graduation rates (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015).

Social-emotional skills matter for success not only in school, but also in the workplace and in life. Employers are increasingly seeking conscientious employees with communication skills and the ability to work productively in groups (Mass INC., 2016). Further, studies have demonstrated that social-emotional competencies are correlated with such long-term life outcomes as higher employment rates and wages and lower rates of substance abuse, obesity, and criminal activity (Moffit et al., 2011; Jones et al., 2015).

While the research on social-emotional learning has grown, its findings are already intuitive to teachers. The vast majority (93 percent) of teachers believe social-emotional skills are important, and 95 percent believe these skills are teachable, according to a 2013 national survey by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Civic Enterprises (Bridgeland, Bruce, & Hariharan, 2013). Furthermore, 88 percent of teachers reported that their school already has some form of SEL programming underway.

Our nonprofit, TransformEd, which is dedicated to helping school systems develop and assess social-emotional competencies, also conducted a study in 2014–2015 that examined the United States' existing investment in SEL (Krachman & LaRocca, 2017). We learned that K–12 public schools in the United States spend approximately $640 million each year on specific programs and educator training to build students' social-emotional skills. In addition to those direct costs, teachers report that they spend about 8 percent of their time on SEL-related planning and activities, which translates to an estimated $30 billion per year in teacher time. The results make it clear: As a nation, we're already investing considerable resources on SEL.

Dozens of evidence-based SEL approaches are being implemented in schools across the country. Some approaches take the form of discrete interventions, like individual online lessons created by the Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS) (, which seek to develop students' "growth mindset"—the belief that ability can change as a result of effort and perseverance. Other initiatives are more comprehensive in nature, such as the social-emotional learning and development organization Second Step's SEL program, which provides strategies for integrating SEL into curricula. Each approach represents a different philosophy about how students can develop social-emotional competencies.

But are these various initiatives working? Some studies have shown impressive results from student interventions, both in terms of academic and social-emotional development (Durlak et al., 2011). However, other studies suggest that not all SEL programs improve outcomes for students. A randomized study funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, for example, concluded that "there were no differences in students' social and emotional competence, behaviors, academic performance, or perceptions of school climate between students in schools implementing one of the seven [SEL] programs [examined] and those in control schools" (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Without systematically measuring students' social-emotional competencies, it's difficult to know which investments are effectively improving outcomes for all kids.

The State of SEL Measurement

Although social-emotional skills have proven to be crucial to student success, many schools aren't measuring these skills. Assessing students' social-emotional skills is a relatively new concept, and school leaders may not know how to start the process or whether the results will provide actionable data. And district leaders may be waiting for states to make assessment decisions in light of ESSA before they initiate new systems on their own.

Fortunately, there is an emerging set of measures that have been shown to be valid, reliable, and scalable in school settings. In addition, leading national and global assessments now include measures of students' social-emotional skills. For example, the international PISA test has piloted a performance task designed to assess students' collaborative problem-solving skills, while the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) began including survey-based measures of social-emotional skills earlier this year (Sparks, 2015).

A growing number of schools are making authentic, sustained efforts to collect data on students' social-emotional skills. NewSchools Venture Fund's "Invent" cohort—a network of innovative schools across the country—is leading an effort to expand the definition of student success and put students at the center of their learning experience. This cohort of schools has adopted a portfolio of survey-based measures to track the full range of knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed for success in college, career, and life.

Last year, the Invent schools piloted surveys of social-emotional skills and school culture and climate that will serve as important complements to the academic measures they are already using. Students responded to questions on such competencies as self-management ("How often did you come to school prepared?") and social awareness ("How well did you get along with students who are different from you?"). The survey results will help Invent schools adapt instruction and modify school design to support students' social-emotional development more effectively.

The CORE Districts in California are another example of a group of schools taking a data-informed approach to SEL with survey-based assessments. In 2013, this group of eight school districts sought to design a new, more holistic data system that reflects the full range of factors they believe are essential for student success. The district leaders built the School Quality Improvement Index (now referred to as the CORE Measurement System), which defines school performance in terms of student academic outcomes, student social-emotional skills, and school climate and culture. Initiating this work at the local level, the districts prioritized four social-emotional competencies for inclusion: self-management, self-efficacy, growth mindset, and social awareness.

These competencies are assessed annually through a combination of student and teacher surveys covering approximately 500,000 students. Similar to the approach taken among the Invent schools, the CORE Districts' student self-reports and teacher reports—administered in grades 5 to 12 once per year to nearly half a million students—ask respondents questions on a series of behaviors and beliefs that relate to each of the four prioritized competencies.

Additionally, both the CORE Districts and the NewSchools Invent cohort administer surveys on culture and climate to better understand the extent to which students feel safe, valued, and connected to others at school. Surveying school culture and climate is a crucial complement to surveying social-emotional skills because it elevates student voice and helps to identify environmental factors and supports that enable students to develop socially and emotionally. For this reason, many SEL programs and interventions seek to explicitly build student skills and cultivate a positive school climate.

The CORE Districts have partnered with the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a nonpartisan research group, to evaluate their approach. In a recent report on the first full year of implementation (2014–2015), PACE found that the CORE measures of social-emotional learning and culture/climate "demonstrate validity and reliability, distinguish between schools, are related to other academic and non-academic measures, and illuminate dimensions of student achievement that go beyond traditional indicators" (Hough, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2017).

PACE asserts that survey-based SEL measures show promise for informing school improvement efforts. In fact, educators are already seeking to use the data to make changes to classroom practice. For example, Fresno Unified School—one of the participating districts—found that starting in middle school, girls reported much lower levels of self-efficacy relative to boys. By measuring social-emotional skills, Fresno now has data on which to base the introduction of interventions that can work to address these kinds of disparities, as well as to improve school-level culture and climate (Mathewson, 2016).

Survey-based measures do have their limitations, and we do not yet have research on how these measures would perform in a formal accountability framework (West, 2016). Notably, several issues can affect how students rate their behavior, which can introduce different kinds of biases and social pressures into the scores (Duckworth & Yeager, 2015). Moreover, surveys can be gamed to indicate higher competency levels than students truly have. These concerns necessitate additional investments in research to build off the encouraging results, such as those from the CORE Districts, that we have so far.

Performance-based assessments also show promise for measuring SEL. Though they have not yet been deployed at the same scale as survey-based measures, performance-based measures may mitigate concerns about the validity of self-reporting on surveys. For example, SELweb, an interactive web-based social-emotional skills assessment developed by child psychology professor Clark McKown, assesses students' self-control, social awareness, perspective-taking, and social problem solving. The computer-administered program takes students through a series of engaging tasks, such as reading facial expressions and playing games that require delaying gratification, to measure their social-emotional skill levels. Two SELweb field trials of more than 4,400 students in six states have yielded encouraging results: Higher scores on the assessment were positively correlated with teacher reports of student behavior and academic performance (McKown, 2017).

Other innovative assessments are emerging as well. The Minnesota Executive Function Scale, developed by Stephanie Carlson and Phil Zelazo of the University of Minnesota, provides an objective, norm-based score of students' executive function skills, cognitive processes like working memory that play key roles in children's behavioral development and emotion regulation. Administered through a tablet or computer, the Minnesota Executive Function Scale is a valid and reliable measure of executive function in students as young as preschool and takes only five minutes on average for each student to complete.

As new assessments surface, TransformEd and many of our partners are committed to staying at the forefront of this field and helping schools access cutting-edge tools. We are leading an assessment work group in partnership with CASEL, the CORE Districts, Harvard University, the RAND Corporation, and others. This work group is building a network of educators, policymakers, researchers, and advocates to advance our collective knowledge about social-emotional competency measures. We plan to release a brief early this year on existing social-emotional measures that educators have found most helpful within their own schools. To catalyze the next generation of social-emotional skill assessments, we're also running an annual design challenge that identifies and celebrates innovative methods of assessment that are emerging right now. There is much work to be done with respect to SEL assessment, but we're on a productive path of learning and discovery.

What Can Educators Do Now?

While SEL measures will continue to improve with time and use, there are already some promising ways to support a data-informed approach to SEL. Here are three recommendations for states and districts:

  1. Leverage the flexibility of ESSA to collect social-emotional data in partnership with state education agencies. In Massachusetts, five statewide associations—in conjunction with TransformEd and The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy—have launched the exSEL Network, a group of districts that will use SEL measures to inform practice and improve outcomes for students. Through this three-year endeavor, the network will allow participating districts to create their own SEL plans, conduct needs assessments around SEL, pilot survey-based social-emotional measures, test various instructional changes, and share among themselves what they learn.

  2. Tailor existing assessments, such as health surveys or culture/climate surveys, to incorporate items related to SEL. Streamlining assessments means states and districts can more efficiently gather data on student competencies through a single process instead of administering multiple, potentially burdensome assessments. Several states, including Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Dakota, are making culture/climate surveys or student engagement surveys crucial features of their data-gathering systems. None of the states currently plan to include social-emotional measures in these assessments, but their statewide survey infrastructures will enable opportunities to incorporate a variety of items in the future. 1

  3. Use formative assessments to identify and scale promising practices for developing students' social-emotional skills. ESSA provides funding opportunities (namely through Title I and Title IV) for educators to engage in evidence-based professional learning on formative assessment and practices. This professional learning can give educators actionable knowledge about using data (including SEL data) and enhance their capacity to implement instructional changes faster and more effectively.

One example is River Dell Regional School District in New Jersey, which is supporting schools in collecting SEL data and testing the effectiveness of specific SEL strategies through frequent learning cycles. This approach will help teachers identify which strategies are most promising and invest their efforts in those strategies going forward.

Schools must measure social-emotional skills systematically in order to identify and invest in the instructional strategies that are most likely to help students succeed. We know from a wide body of research that these competencies matter, and school systems are already devoting billions of dollars per year to educational resources that help students develop these crucial skills. However, without data on which approaches yield the best outcomes for students, we're flying blind.

The world is asking more and more of today's students. We owe it to them to prioritize the effective development of skills and mindsets that will guide them toward success.


Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The missing piece: A national teacher survey on how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and Civic Enterprises.

Duckworth, A., & Yeager, D. (2015). Measurement matters: Assessing personal qualities other than cognitive ability for educational purposes. Educational Researcher, 44(4), 237–251.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions." Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2014). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Farrington, C. A., et al. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners—The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Gabrieli, C., Ansel, D., & Krachman, S. B. (2015). Ready to be counted: The research case for education policy action on non-cognitive skills. Boston, MA: Transforming Education. Retrieved from

Heckman, J., Stixrud, J., & Urzua, S. (2006). The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor Economics, 24(3), 411–482.

Hough, H. J., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2017). Using surveys of students' social-emotional learning and school climate for accountability and continuous improvement. Policy Analysis for California Education. Retrieved from

Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 2283–2290.

Krachman, S., & LaRocca, R. (2017). The scale of our investment in social-emotional learning. Boston, MA: Transforming Education. Retrieved from

The Mass INC. Polling Group. (2016). Mass. business leaders focus on real world skills, good teachers. Boston, MA: Author. Retrieved from

Mathewson, T. G. (2016, November 14). "How are districts measuring progress on SEL?" Education Dive. Retrieved from

McKown, C. (2017). Social-emotional assessment, performance and standards. Future of Children, 27(1), 157–178.

Moffitt, T. E., et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693–2698.

Sparks, S. D. (2015, June 2). "'Nation's report card' to gather data on grit, mindset." Education Week. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (October 2010). Efficacy of schoolwide programs to promote social and character development and reduce problem behavior in elementary school children. Retrieved from

West, M. R. (2016). Should non-cognitive skills be included in school accountability systems? Preliminary evidence from California's CORE Districts. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from

End Notes

1 You can find several curated examples of free, validated social-emotional measures at the TransformEd web site at

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