Are Schools Ready to Assess Social and Emotional Development?

How is Jayden doing in English? Check his writing grades.

How are Olivia and Jayden getting along with others? Are they engaged, optimistic, empathetic, and self-aware? Can they cooperate with others, make decisions, and resolve conflict? Are they good listeners? Do they respect others?

That’s a lot more complicated.

There’s a growing consensus that students must master social and emotional skills—along with “the three Rs”— to succeed in college, careers, and life. In fact, mounting evidence shows that these skills may be more predictive than test scores of student success in English language arts and math.

And the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the basic federal framework for education policy, states that “school climate” and “student engagement” are valid indicators of school quality or student success.

So how can states and districts build systems to support and properly assess these social and emotional skills and competencies?

Illinois, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia already have SEL standards independent of their academic content standards. And most states’ current standards for, say, the Common Core or college and career readiness, include some components of social and emotional learning.  

But more difficult, teachers, principals, district and state policymakers, and education researchers have to find valid and reliable ways to properly evaluate students’ social and emotional skills and competencies.

Validity, reliability, efficiency, and purpose all matter critically when considering assessment of social and emotional skills and competencies. Some of the roadblocks to valid assessments have been pointed out by Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and David Yeager of the University of Texas. 

So let’s see what can happen in the case of Olivia and Jayden.

Olivia’s teacher may fill out a questionnaire about Olivia’s current collaboration and leadership skills with answers that reflect initial impressions from the beginning of the school year. Or Olivia may behave very differently in one teacher’s class or at home. In each case, the results of Olivia’s assessment aren’t an accurate measurement of her social and emotional skills.

At Jayden’s school, SEL practices have been in place for years. Jayden and his teachers have developed a critical eye for social and emotional skills and competencies. Jayden may get higher ratings than Olivia because he and his teachers are more experienced in assessing social and emotional skills, they have a shared language about skill building, and they’ve developed more critical judgments.   

Most current social and emotional skills assessments were developed in research settings to collectively evaluate large numbers of youth – not individuals. That means that controlling for these factors takes significantly more training and effort than schools and districts typically provide.

Then, too, there is no single gold standard for assessing social and emotional development. That means that repeatedly implementing individual student assessments may overburden districts without the resources that this kind of rigorous assessment requires. It might not even be fair or ethical to subject students, teachers, and parents to a burdensome regimen of assessment.

For these reasons, some educators may opt to assess the overall school climate to gauge its effects on social and emotional learning. Done properly—taking into account current standards of teacher practice, student engagement, social and emotional supports, and the school’s physical environment—this simpler approach can still highlight the conditions for social and emotional learning and identify areas for improvement.

That said, assessing students’ social and emotional skills can yield critical information about each child’s development. And that information can help teachers and parents discover the best in each child, and improvement in traditional subjects and test scores.

Taking that route requires educators to develop an assessment plan that

  • sets a well-defined purpose;
  • identifies a rigorous assessment;
  • outlines practical considerations for carrying out the assessment; and
  • evaluates ethical considerations and the burden to students, staff, teachers, and families.

What works best for educators? Here AIR can help schools, districts, and states decide whether and how to assess social and emotional development through a suite of free tools called Ready to Assess.

Does every school, program, or intervention need individual SEL assessment? Probably not.

Do we need more educators working together to educate the whole child—adopting practices that foster opportunities for social and emotional learning and a positive school climate for all students? Absolutely.

Deborah Moroney is a principal researcher specializing in social and emotional learning in school and in afterschool settings. Michael McGarrah is a research associate specializing in human development and college and career readiness policy.