Second Step® Insights

Make an Impact with SEL Assessments: Insights from Three Experts

April 24, 2024 | By: The Second Step® Team

girl reading a book at a desk, smiling at the camera

This article is a recap of our webinar, “Making Real Impact with SEL Assessments.”

Many school leaders and educators know the benefits of teaching social-emotional skills in schools and the decades of research supporting it. But what’s the best way for stakeholders to measure and assess social-emotional learning (SEL) success among students and across their district? As part of the webinar “Making Real Impact with SEL Assessments,” we sat down with three experts in the SEL curriculum and assessment space to identify ways to ensure SEL assessment success and avoid common roadblocks. Here, we share their thoughtful insights.

Our Experts
Brandon Frame, EdD
Founder and Chief Visionary Officer
TheBlackManCan, Inc.

Lisa Micou, PhD
Director of Program Implementation
Aperture Education

Tia Kim, PhD
VP Education, Research, and Impact
Committee for Children

Identify your primary reason for implementing SEL assessment

Brandon: “Districts want students to be able to talk about their strengths, challenges, and needs academically ... and their needs around their social-emotional skills. They are spending money on curricula, putting it into schools and classrooms. They want to be able to evaluate how it works.”

Tia: “School leaders get funding for their programs, and they want to show that the programs are working so that they can continue to receive funding.” Tia says the assessments also help educators answer questions about how to provide additional support to individuals or groups of kids, identify students’ strengths, and improve the effectiveness of the skills instruction.

Lisa: “Districts want to be able to streamline decision-making. They’re saying, we really don’t have time to guess; we need good assessment data that’s going to target where we focus our efforts.” Lisa says assessment informs district leaders about exactly where they need support, why they need support, and whether that support is working.

Determine your assessment goals before implementation begins

Tia: “Every district has different goals that they want to achieve with [SEL]. It may be that they want to see increases in certain social-emotional competencies or improve their school climate. Districts should be very clear on what goals [they’re] trying to accomplish with [their] SEL program and then make sure that the assessment [they] choose actually measures those goals.”

Lisa: “Understand what kind of skills you are tracking. Are you tracking the development of positive pro-social skills like the DESSA does or are you tracking deficits? Because one of the things we want to be very clear on is if we’re trying to help people see students in a transformative, positive way, then that’s what we need to measure. We need to help them see what students are demonstrating in terms of their positive pro-social skills and then what they are not yet demonstrating, which is the heart of that growth mindset.”

Brandon: “First you need to ensure that as a district you have a definition of what [SEL] is. If you don’t have a definition that’s clear throughout the district, in terms of all your schools, even bringing in the assessment can be a challenge. So consider what your definition is, get everybody behind that definition, and then [you] can bring in the assessment that aligns ... and outline what [you’re] trying to measure and capture. [Once you have data, you] can ensure that students are learning these social-emotional skills, and [you] can also infuse it into the academic space.”

Avoid common assessment roadblocks

Tia says sometimes districts struggle with how to actually use the data they collected. “They want to collect data to learn all these things but then they’re left asking, what do I do now that I have this data? What they really want are actionable plans. So when you’re looking at assessments, make sure the reporting features and structures they’re providing, the kinds of tips they give, and the resources they point you to really align with the data that you’re looking for.”

Lisa points out, “It’s crucial for districts to be able to connect that ‘why’ for educators and school staff. Sometimes districts will put something into place but fail to connect it to everything else that they’re doing. It’s key to help people understand that we’re adding this assessment for this purpose, because it connects to our strategic plan and goals. This is what we’re trying to accomplish … using this data point.”

Brandon adds, “When we’re thinking about the skills kids have yet to display, we have to ask ourselves [if they’ve] ever been taught [them]. If they haven’t been taught those skills, we’re penalizing students for something they haven’t learned. And then that will just continue to happen over and over again. I tell schools and districts you have to suspend the idea that … you’re fifteen and you should know this, or you’re eight so you should know that. We have to ask, has this student—this child—actually learned this skill in an explicit and intentional way? This is why we have assessment, so we can see where [students] are and then what we need to teach.”

Expert words of SEL wisdom

Lisa: “If we want students to be partners with us in education, then they need the skills to be able to be partners with us in education. They have to know where they’re going and when they get there, and that’s all through assessment.”

Tia: “What gets measured gets done. If you don’t actually know where you’re at and what progress and goals you’re trying to get to, it becomes really difficult to figure out what types of services, supports, and programs you need to provide to get kids to the goals you set.”

Brandon: “Every young person deserves to have an opportunity to develop, to know where they fall with their social-emotional skills, and to be able to reflect and think about how they can set their own goals to improve. We owe them that so they can become emotionally intelligent adults who will lead our country and the world.”

Watch “Making Real Impact with SEL Assessments.”
Learn more about DESSA Second Step® Assessments and Aperture Education.
Explore our Second Step® family of programs, which provides K–12 SEL curricula.