The Center is Getting Emotional about Assessment

Dec 09, 2020

Part 3: How Districts Can Use Assessment to Support Social and Emotional Learning

This is the third 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 social and emotional learning in responsible and useful ways through assessment.

In our previous posts we explained why social and emotional learning (SEL) skills should be taught in schools and offered principles for state agencies to support social and emotional learning development. Districts also have considerable responsibility to ensure that schools are administering and using SEL assessment in a way that produces more equitable outcomes for all students and mitigates the dangerous consequences for students of systemic racism in America. Here, we outline four key principles for districts to establish robust and equitable assessment systems to ensure all students can thrive.

1. Create a Holistic Approach to Support Social and Emotional Learning that Prioritizes Community Input

Early SEL programs and assessment practices introduced in the late 1990s failed to produce significant effects on important academic, social, and emotional outcomes (Brackett, 2019) because they lacked a holistic approach to SEL development. Schools must attend to the environments in which students learn, the systems and structures that inhibit student development, and the adults who teach and model these skills. For example, programs intended to foster a growth mindset in students when the adults in building tend toward fixed mindsets will inevitably fail, since SEL needs to be reinforced through modeling.

Districts must focus holistically on fostering favorable school environments, building adult SEL and SEL assessment literacy skills, and improving students’ SEL competencies. This approach includes considering how existing programs and practices interact with new approaches and programs to implement SEL (Adams, 2018). In particular, district leaders should consider the extent to which discipline policies enable or inhibit the authentic development of SEL skills.

Additionally, community input is an essential prerequisite to creating successful district-wide SEL programs. Educators and the broader school community must share the belief that social and emotional learning, academic success, and personal growth are inextricably linked before SEL instruction can change students’ behaviors. Changing beliefs is not easy; it requires an inclusive and transparent process that disseminates credible knowledge about the learning process, encourages alternative ideas, identifies common ground, and facilitates consensus when disagreements emerge (Duchesneau, 2020). When executed well, common SEL definitions and competencies can extend beyond the school and weave themselves into community norms.

2. Implement Evidence-Based Assessments to Identify Needs and Monitor Learning Conditions

A clear set of SEL competencies and definitions is needed to drive districts’ selection of SEL programs and assessments. A key rule of thumb in the process of selecting assessments is to be parsimonious; select a small number of low-stakes measures that link to essential competencies and address a clear set of purposes and uses (Hamilton and Schwartz, 2019). Publicly available resources can help districts support social and emotional learning through assessment planning, including:

  • The Social and Emotional Learning Assessment Work Group (AWG), a group of scholars, test developers, and educators focused on supporting high-quality social and emotional competence assessment, created a web-based tool to select SEL assessments, with accompanying guidance on SEL assessment selection and implementation.
  • RAND created the SEL Assessment Finder, a web-based tool that provides information about assessments of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and higher-order cognitive competencies. District practitioners can use the tool to explore design features and intended uses of available assessments.

Fostering students’ social, emotional, and academic development requires assessment systems that expand beyond individual SEL competencies to ensure that learning environments and school practices are conducive for whole-child development. We discussed this need in our previous post, and it deserves further attention. My colleague Juan D’Brot recently wrote that systems of assessment often focus narrowly on academic content, failing to collect more holistic information on learning environments and opportunity-to-learn indicators. For example, proper nutrition, physically and psychologically safe environments, caring adult and peer relationships, equitable access to technology, and access to high-quality curriculum represent key factors that influence a student’s readiness to learn.

Integrating indicators of school climate and opportunity to learn are essential for districts to monitor equitable learning conditions and effectively deploy resources and support to schools. The National Center on Safe and Supportive School Environments has created a tool that offers a catalog of survey instruments across stakeholders and school levels to identify and assess conditions for learning.

3. Encourage Self- and Formative Assessment as a Lever to Improve Equity

SEL skills are not the panacea for eradicating social injustices. However, students with high levels of social and emotional intelligence are more likely to remain open to alternative perspectives and demonstrate greater persistence in reconciling inconsistent thoughts. And these abilities are essential for examining how power and prejudice influence differential access and opportunities for students of poverty and color (Simmons et al., 2018).

Adult SEL competency must precede students’ SEL development (Jennings and Greenberg, 2009). Principals and teachers must learn to responsibly wield their power before they can help students do the same, which starts by using SEL data to inform educator professional development. For example, information on schools’ working conditions can be used to determine the extent to which psychologically safe and judgment-free environments exist in schools. These conditions are necessary prerequisites for educators to openly share contrary perspectives, check assumptions, and assess their own biases. Self-assessment measures can be used to monitor educators’ SEL competency and teachers’ use of formative assessment. Results can also be used to identify areas of strength and target specific professional learning opportunities to improve equitable teaching and assessment practices.

As school conditions improve and educator SEL competency rises, teachers become adept at modeling and teaching these skills to students. They gain skills in using formative feedback to question students’ assumptions and spark healthy conversations about real-world problems affecting equitable opportunities and social justice. And they are able to recognize and remove classroom assessment practices that may be unintentionally creating greater inequity among students.

4. Support Schools in Using Assessment Results to Drive Change

According to a national survey on SEL, a majority of education leaders and teachers believe in the importance of SEL assessment, but they struggle to use data to drive change (Atwell & Bridgeland, 2019Hamilton et al., 2019). Districts can support schools by building the infrastructure necessary to collect and report on SEL and climate data. For example, the CORE Districts created a new tool, Rally, to provide educators with immediate and actionable data on students’ well-being, including their perceptions of their SEL and of the school climate, targeted to remote and hybrid learning.  In addition to a data reporting system, districts should provide support to schools to use the data to drive change (McKown and Herman, 2020). Washoe County, for example, provides toolkits and resources for schools to interpret the data and use it for goal-setting and improvement planning. Finally, districts can curate evidence-based SEL programs for schools, which focus on creating safe and equitable school and classroom environments as described in our second principle. (see, for example, Nagaoka et al., 2015).

Districts that approach SEL holistically are much more likely to influence and support social and emotional learning and skill development in schools. Additionally, numerous resources are available to support districts’ selection, reporting, and use of SEL measures to monitor learning conditions and implement formative assessment strategies. When districts’ measures are well-aligned to SEL competencies and curriculum, SEL measures become useful tools for monitoring equitable learning conditions, targeting professional development, and improving SEL teaching and assessment practice in schools.