SEL Measurement: Why? What? How? Part 3: How?

By Karyn Lewis
January 2018
A teacher helping a students on a science project

Selecting the Right SEL Measurement Tool for You

Once you know which SEL skills, mindsets and competencies you’d like to measure (see our previous post), how do you decide what measurement tool to use?

There are now several easily accessible and low-cost SEL measurement tools available to educators. Rather than make recommendations on which tool to choose, we instead offer a few strategies for selecting a robust tool that best suits your priorities and student population.

Here are a few questions to consider when forming your approach:

Should We Survey Students or Adults?

When you want to gain insight into your students’ SEL capacities, it’s important to ask the right people the right questions.

Students are probably the best judge of their beliefs, so if you want to learn about their mindsets, sense of belonging, beliefs about effort, etc., use a tool to survey students.

However, students may not be the best judge of their behavior—if you want to learn about students’ social skills, conscientiousness and other demonstrated SEL capacities, use a tool that surveys the adults who know the students best.

Does the tool provide actionable and timely data? This is important. When measures are tied to the specific leverage points you want to impact and allow participants to respond quickly, you get the best feedback.

Is the Tool Rigorous Enough?

Rigor is the extent to which a measure is reliable and valid in an intended setting. Most tools have an accompanying technical report that includes information on reliability and validity, but these properties of a measure are context specific and should be continually re-evaluated.

How much rigor a tool must have largely depends on how you plan to use it. For example, tools used in high-stakes decision-making require more rigor than those used for internal information gathering. This Carnegie Foundation report discusses validity considerations associated with different intended uses for measures.

Is the tool practical? Some additional things to consider when selecting a tool include:

  • How much does it cost?
  • Will additional training be required to administer the survey and/or analyze the data?
  • How quickly can the data be accessed?
  • Will additional technology be required to administer the tool?
  • How much of a burden will it be on respondents?

As a final point, because SEL data can easily get misused, educators often need training and professional development to understand how to act on the data that are collected. Here are some important things to keep in mind when it comes to using SEL data:

  • Understanding the nuances of context is critical. Comparing demographic groups carries the danger of placing the responsibility for developing SEL capacities on the student. It can also perpetuate a “failure narrative.”
  • Avoid using SEL data to compare schools or settings. It is not advisable to aggregate SEL measures and compare settings unless tools are well vetted for this purpose since some SEL measures have shown the potential for reference bias (when survey responses are systematically biased because students have different standards of comparison).
  • Consider how SEL skills typically develop when examining and interpreting data. For instance, is an observed difference in self-efficacy between girls and boys a cause for alarm, or could it be explained by typical developmental patterns that diverge based on gender? Further, SEL skills are unlikely to develop in a linear fashion like other academic skills, and few (if any) could ever be considered “mastered.”

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