SEL Measurement: Why? What? How? Part 1: Why?

By Karyn Lewis
January 2018
Teachers interacting with their students with a light bulb in the center

Robust evidence shows that strong social and emotional learning (SEL) capacities are critical for academic engagement and are an essential factor in students’ ability to achieve their full potential. Many educators are beginning to embrace the concept of SEL because they have long known that test scores are not the be-all, end-all of young people’s potential to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Not surprisingly, this new emphasis on SEL has also raised questions about assessment. Students’ SEL capacities, such as social skills, self-regulation and self-efficacy, present unique measurement challenges.

The question of whether SEL skills can and should be measured became more controversial after passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. In addition to other indicators, ESSA requires states to include one open-ended “nonacademic” indicator in their evaluation of school performance. Many viewed this as an unprecedented opportunity for states to think holistically about student success and potentially develop indicators related to SEL.

The enthusiasm this drew from SEL proponents was equally matched by skepticism from SEL critics who called into question the variable definitions of SEL skills and the adequacy of SEL measurement tools (especially those that rely on student self-assessment) to rank how schools are doing. Even the people developing measurement tools pushed back, saying they were not designed to be used for accountability.

These concerns are legitimate, and I agree that SEL measurement tools are not yet ready for high-stakes decision-making. What is missed in this debate, however, is that accountability is only one way to use SEL measurements—and may even be one of the least important. There are several other, more urgent reasons for educators to consider measuring SEL.

When selected and implemented to address specific contexts, SEL measures can provide valuable formative information that helps schools serve students more effectively. Specifically, they can help educators identify at-risk students, pinpoint student strengths and challenges and guide program improvement efforts.

Supporting Students

Some students—especially those impacted by trauma—may benefit from additional support to develop their SEL capacities. In this context, we know it’s important to intervene early, before problems arise. Data gathered from a survey that assesses self-regulation and social skills (capacities we know are likely to be impacted by early trauma) could be used to identify students who would benefit from more intensive supports, as well as to tailor those supports appropriately.

If you are thinking about implementing a SEL measurement project to identify student need, consider these points before you begin:

  • SEL measures may not be sufficiently reliable for individual diagnosis when used in isolation. Consider using SEL measures in tandem with other indicators (e.g., attendance, behavioral data) to increase the validity of decisions that will have a major impact on a student.
  • SEL skills likely develop differently than academic skills. SEL capacities should not be expected to develop in a linear fashion with incremental advances at every stage.

Improving Programs

SEL measures can also provide valuable formative information when they are used to support program improvement efforts. Surveys and other tools can provide actionable data that help identify existing system capacity, prioritize which interventions to try based on the SEL capacities students are struggling with and gauge whether those efforts are successful based on whether there is any evidence of growth following an intervention.

If you are thinking about implementing an SEL measurement project for program improvement, consider these questions before you begin:

  • Does the benefit of collecting SEL data outweigh the potential burden of implementing a survey? Routinely collected data (for example, climate survey data, chronic absenteeism rates, discipline data) may be available that can serve as a substitute for SEL factors of interest.
  • Is the survey you are considering aligned with your program improvement efforts? Make sure the tool you choose measures constructs specifically tied to improvement efforts and can detect short-term changes.

Thinking It Through

To ensure that SEL measures are providing the formative information needed to serve students more effectively, it’s important to think through these and other important decisions that must be made at the outset, including why you want to measure SEL, how you intend to use the SEL data you collect, who you want to survey, and which particular SEL capacities are appropriate to measure.

Don't miss the other posts in this three-part series that cover the What? and How? of measuring SEL.