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October 4, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 4

6 Steps to Effective SEL Assessment

Social-emotional learning
A national survey suggests that most educators believe that children's social and emotional development is critical to a child's success in school and life, and that it is an educator's job to nurture these skills.
If you count yourself among that majority of educators who not only care about children's social and emotional learning SEL), but who are also actively supporting SEL as part of their effort to educate the whole child, I urge you to assess it regularly. To teach reading skills effectively, you must understand the strengths and needs of your students. Similarly, it's important to understand children's social-emotional skill level, so that you can build on strengths and address needs through curriculum, instruction, and your relationship with your students.
Okay, you say, that sounds like a good idea, but how do I do that? There are lots of good reading tests, but there aren't any SEL assessments. That's not true, actually (as you'll see in item #3). To implement effective SEL assessment, consider the following questions:
  • Which specific SEL skills will you teach and assess? SEL is a big concept, with many components. Spend some time with your school community creating consensus about what you mean by "SEL," so that your efforts are focused and effective. Your school might focus on supporting effective social problem solving, for example. CASEL offers a useful framework for considering what SEL skills include in your focus.
  • Why do you want to assess SEL? Do you want to evaluate a program's effectiveness? Equip teachers with formative assessments on their students' SEL strengths and needs? Advance your Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) program? SEL assessment can advance many goals. To pick the right assessment for you and use it productively, you must be clear about what you want to accomplish.
  • Now that you've clarified what you want to assess and why you want to assess it, what is the best tool for the job? Aperture's DESSA is a terrific teacher rating scale. My organization, xSEL Labs, offers direct assessments of SEL skills. (Both tools available for a fee.) Others offer self-report questionnaires that can be downloaded for free or as part of a purchase. Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses, and I advise you to select the assessment tool that measures what you care about and can help you achieve your assessment goal. I summarize the strengths and weaknesses of different SEL assessments here and here.
  • Before you assess, how will you join with the parent community as partners in this process? What can you do to educate them about your assessment plans, your goals, and how you will use the data to make things better? How will you address parent concerns? I offer some practical suggestions for how to do this in this blog post.
  • Once you've assessed your students, how do you intend to discuss the assessment data? Data are great, but assessment reports won't do anything if no one looks at them. What are the forums for discussion? How will your team review, deliberate over, interpret, and finally, make sense of assessment findings? Do you have existing data review practices? If so, can you add your SEL assessment data so that your teams review reading, math, and SEL? If not, what can you do to bring this discipline to your building? One of xSEL Labs' long-time district partners, for example, convenes "data days" in which grade-level teams review assessment data in reading, math, and SEL to guide their work with students.
  • Finally, what will you do with what you learn? There are many ways to use SEL data, including investing in an evidence-based SEL program, providing professional development on SEL, coaching teachers on creating a positive academic, social, and emotional climate, and introducing supplemental lessons to develop students' SEL skills. For example, several of our district partners have adopted evidence-based SEL programs such as Second Step, which contain lesson plans and materials designed to address the skills measured by our SEL assessment system.
Note that in these six steps, selecting the right assessment tool is only one part. That is because, assessment developer though I am, it is increasingly clear to me that the most important part is not the assessment itself (although I advise picking a good one!). The more important consideration is to use your assessment wisely, which means being clear about what you want to measure, why you want to measure it, selecting the right tool for the job, and having a plan for discussing and taking action based on what you learn.

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