The Center is Getting Emotional about Assessment

Nov 30, 2020

Part 2: What States Can Do to Support Balanced SEL Assessment Systems

This is the second in a four-part series on social and emotional learning (SEL) assessment by Center associate Chris Brandt and guest author Katie Buckley, Managing Director of Research & Learning at Transforming Education. Across four posts, they make the argument that balanced systems of assessment must effectively support SEL and offer recommendations for how states, districts, and schools can and should support SEL in responsible and useful ways through assessment.

Our previous post made a case for integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools. In this post, we discuss four principles to guide state agencies in equitably supporting the social, emotional, and academic development of all students. These principles, which we describe below, include adopting SEL competency standards, avoiding high-stakes use of SEL assessments, prioritizing a focus on equitable learning environments, and supporting culturally-responsive assessment for formative use.

  1. Adopt SEL Competency Standards. Valid measurement requires a clear target. A common criticism among SEL skeptics is that SEL is a nebulous concept with unclear targets. SEL standards should support a common vision of SEL competencies. It is not uncommon to hear a state official ask, “what are social and emotional skills?” and “what knowledge and skills are essential?” Does grit and growth mindset count as a SEL skill? How about agency, ethics, and integrity? State SEL standards first emerged in preschool because sitting still, paying attention, and calming oneself were essential for Kindergarten readiness. As new information emerges about the critical role social-emotional skills play in learning across the developmental spectrum, more states are explicitly articulating these goals across the K-12 continuum. As of spring 2020, all 50 states have SEL standards for preschool and 18 states had SEL standards for K-12 (Zhao, 2020). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) developed a research-based framework to promote five SEL core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. This framework has been conceptualized to intentionally address issues of racial justice (Jagers et al., 2019). Additionally, the EASEL Lab at Harvard University has created a taxonomy of SEL frameworks to guide practitioners in understanding and choosing a framework or set of competencies that align with state standards.
  2. Avoid Using SEL Assessments for High Stakes. States and districts must avoid using SEL assessments for high stakes (i.e., school accountability; teacher evaluation), since SEL assessments have not yet undergone the validation process required of academic and cognitive assessments (Taylor, Buckley, Hamilton, Stecher, Read, and Schweig, 2018). Student surveys, the primary way to capture SEL information, are prone to several types of bias (Duckworth and Yeager, 2015). For example, reference bias, whereby students’ perceptions are influenced by the context in which they operate, can lead to students in schools with higher levels of a competency reporting lower results than their academic peers. Other biases inherent in student surveys create misleading results as well; for example, stereotype threat is when students report based on their perception of how people in their group (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, social class) are believed by others to perform, and acquiescence bias is when students report higher competencies than they actually believe based on the perceived expectations of others. Perhaps most important when considering high-stakes use of SEL measures is that they are easily corrupted – and the higher the stakes, the more seriously those SEL measures can be corrupted. Until assessments are created to overcome these biases and to appropriately measure the development of these skills over time, we cannot be confident that high-stakes SEL competency assessments accurately capture information about student skills and attributes in ways that are sensitive to age, developmental stage, and context (Bridgeland et al., 2018, p. 24).  States should not include student-level SEL competency in their accountability systems.
  3. Collect Indicators of Equitable Learning Environments. Studies show that social-emotional well-being and academic performance are inextricably linked to the context in which students develop and the relationships they build over time (Osher et al., 2018). Students learn best in contexts that cultivate trusting relationships; where they feel cared for, respected, and valued for the qualities that make them unique. States can support such school environments by developing data collection systems that monitor students’ equitable access to resources, tools, supportive relationships, and experiences for learning (Duchesneau, 2020). These data in turn communicate an ongoing commitment to equity for all students. In particular, states can encourage schools to prioritize equitable SEL practices by including SEL-related indicators in their reporting systems to illuminate differences in learning environments by race and ethnicity. Many states collect school climate data through surveys and other means, in addition to quality measures of school safety and after-school programming, and student attendance, discipline, access to rigorous coursework. Panorama, an organization that supports SEL data use in schools, has created a survey for students to measure their perceptions of the diversity, equity and inclusion within their school. Disaggregating these data by race/ethnicity, gender and special populations can reveal the extent to which students are experiencing differential learning environments within and across schools. Furthermore, the current COVID crisis has shined a spotlight on inequities in students’ access to resources, tools, and experiences for learning. The Center for Assessment and the Aspen Institute recently released a policy brief that calls on states to expand the collection of opportunity-to-learn (OTL) indicators. SEL indicators would be an important part of such OTL data collection systems.
  4. Support Culturally-Responsive Assessment for Formative Use. While we do not advocate for the use of SEL assessments for high-stakes use, there is tremendous value in implementing SEL assessment for formative use. However, such assessments must account for students’ different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds leading them to express and regulate their emotions very differently. Culturally-responsive assessments take into consideration a student’s cultural and socio-economic background, language preferences, and learning styles. They give educators the flexibility to adapt assessments to accommodate diverse learning styles and allow students choice in how they demonstrate their learning. The teacher and student work collectively to diagnose learning needs, develop learning goals, identify learning resources, choose appropriate learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes (Montenegro & Jankowki, 2017Brandt, 2020). And throughout the learning process, teachers are mindful of how language and culture may be appropriate and inclusive of some groups but not others. Additionally, culturally-responsive assessments allow students in populations outside of the majority to maintain their cultural integrity as they demonstrate what they know and can do. According to one study, most states now require schools to incorporate some aspect of cultural-responsiveness in their ESSA plans under Title II Part A (Supporting Effective Instruction) or Part B (National Activities) (Schettino, Radvany, and Wells, 2019). Several states augment these policies with resources and guidance to support implementation. For example, the New York State Education Department recently produced a Culturally Responsive – Sustaining Framework. The framework recognizes that cultural differences should be treated as assets for teaching and learning and includes “inclusive curriculum and assessment” as one of four principles to support culturally responsive education. And the Kentucky Department of Education has curated a set of online resources such as articles, lesson planning checklists, sample lessons, and videos to support culturally responsive practices and pedagogy.

State education agencies share responsibility with districts and schools for supporting students’ SEL skill development. States should rely on the above principles to support proper selection, interpretation, and use of SEL assessment. In the next two posts in this series, we provide SEL assessment recommendations for districts and schools, where most of the effort to integrate SEL in schools is occurring.