Social and Emotional Learning and Assessment: The Demand is Clear

Learner Experience, Learning, PreK-12

By Jonathan E. Martin

A great new consensus is emerging in K-12 education today: social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential not just for its own sake, but for its wide outcomes in academic and life success. Schooling in all its forms must place a greater priority on developing student noncognitive skills and character strengths.

This is not news to teachers. Ask a preschool assistant teacher or an AP Physics instructor and you’ll likely find resounding, impassioned agreement: dependability, persistence, ambition, curiosity and getting along with others matter as much (or very often much more) than cognitive ability for success in school.

Education leaders have similarly embraced this understanding–ASCD made the “whole child” its slogan–and many district leaders are shifting the emphasis of schooling from content knowledge to intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and college readiness.

In the past decade or so, this common sense point of view–the importance of whole child education–has been emphatically endorsed by researchers, social scientists and think tanks, including Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, New York Times  journalist Paul Tough, MacArthur “genius” prize winner Angela Duckworth, the Hewlett Foundation, the RAND Corporation, the National Research Council, the Brookings Institute, the Economic Policy Institute and the New America Foundation.

Evidence abounds showing that the educational field is working to strengthen its effectiveness in developing and implementing social and emotional curricula. Schools are preparing improvement initiatives, districts creating new strategic plans, counselors better targeting particular skills for growth and teachers providing more formative feedback.

Required for all these efforts is effective measurement and assessment methods.

Indeed, upon surveying the national conversation about strengthening SEL, this demand becomes abundantly clear: noncognitive skill assessment is a necessary, even critical component, of any and all such efforts. Let’s review these needs:

For Accountability: As the New York Times reported about the brand-new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (Dec. 2015), in the new accountability system “a student performance measure, like grit or school climate, has to be part of the evaluation equation.”

For Institutional Dashboards: There’s expanding interest from school board members in institutional dashboards that annually report on the school or district’s progress on a wide array of the most important metrics, which usually include character competencies.

For Evidence of ROI: In charter schools, there is demand from all quarters—from charter authorizers, from foundation funders, from millionaire and billionaire donors (who prioritize the “ROI” of their philanthropic support) and from comparison shopper parents–for more data about the effectiveness of their alternative educational programs. Private and independent schools seek more data to demonstrate their value in a crowded marketplace as well. For formative assessment is widely being implemented, thanks in part to the influence of John Hattie’s Visible Learning movement, and accordingly many schools and districts are seeking to provide better and more frequent dollops of feedback to students about their SEL progress—and seek assessment tools and systems to do so.

For Continuous Improvement: Coming from the Carnegie Endowment for the Advance of Teaching and elsewhere are demands for and interest in a greater use of measurement for continuous improvement. The example provided in Carnegie’s recent book about improvement measurement is of “productive persistence.” But as all this happens, an important gap is being increasingly perceived by nearly all involved: we lack the effective measurement and assessment instruments and methods we need for improving social and emotional learning and developing noncognitive skills.

This demand, however, is still unmet.

As much as these measurements are needed, the tools are still lacking. The National Research Council, in its 2012 landmark authoritative report, Education for Life and Work, declared for that for “intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies [there is] a paucity of high-quality measures for assessing them.”

In 2013, the much-discussed Gordon Commission report stated among its nine core arguments that “assessment must fully represent the competencies that the complex world demands.” In 2016, the World Economic Forum report, “Fostering Social and Emotional Learning,” explained that the most challenging obstacle to strengthening SEL is the “lack of consensus about valid and reliable SEL measurements,[which is] a key concern among stakeholders.  Lack of measurement emerged from our survey as one of the most important impediments to promoting SEL among parents and teachers in the U.S., UK, China and South Korea, with 48%–72% of respondents citing this as one of the main barriers to teaching social and emotional skills.”

Yes, there are student surveys and self-report instruments, which provide students Likert-type rating scales and ask students the extent to which they agree with a number of statements about themselves. They are by far the most frequently employed assessment tools, and though they can be used in limited ways for limited purposes, they are distinctly limited as a complete measurement solution.

Respondents to such surveys often inflate their own skills to provide more socially desirable answers and  suffer from “reference bias,” which is to say there is no consistent comparative set for different responders as they self-evaluate their skills. Yes, there are teacher ratings of students, but many schools and districts find it difficult or impossible to add more tasks and time to the already demanding teacher workload.

What’s needed are more robust systems of assessment and measurement, ones that combine multiple methods, provide fake-resistant item types, and ones that ask students to think and learn as they read about or view complex scenarios, imagine themselves in those situations and rate various options as being of greater or lesser effectiveness.

The demand is clear and the time is now: let’s seek and support more robust measurement and assessment systems to better empower educators to advance social and emotional learning for all students.

This post is part of a blog series on measuring SEL and non-cognitive skills produced in partnership with ProExam (@proexam). Join the conversation on Twitter using #SEL. For more in this series, see:

Jonathan E. Martin is Strategic Implementation Advisor to ProExam Tessera and an educational writer and consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanEMartin.


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1 Comments

Jimmy /

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