Second Step® Assessment

How to choose the right assessment tools, based on your goals and priorities.

students raising hands in class

Understanding the Options

We’re often asked by schools and districts for advice on how to assess their students’ social-emotional competencies. Assessment of social-emotional learning (SEL) can be as formal and rigorous as a multi-site, randomized control trial (RCT) or as casual as asking teachers and students for feedback. Most commonly, schools and districts choose to do something that falls between these two.

A good general approach is choosing an assessment tool that can help you gather data points that relate meaningfully to your strategic goals, which may include increasing students’ sense of belonging or improving academic engagement.

Where to Start

As with measuring academic competencies, there are many possible metrics and tools to measure social-emotional competencies and the overall impact of your SEL implementation.1 Finding the right strategy depends on your goals. To plan thoughtfully, start by asking a few guiding questions.

  • Is assessment a requirement?

    Sometimes a grant or official mandate requires assessment of students’ social-emotional competencies. If so, be sure to read the requirements for choosing an assessment tool carefully to make sure you gather and report the requisite information. The assessment tools and guidelines included with Second Step® programs (e.g., the program evaluation guide) work well for schools that want to make sure teachers and students are benefiting from the programs and determine if additional support or training is needed.

  • What specific information are you hoping to learn?

    If you primarily want to identify general areas for continuous improvement or gauge where students might need more instructional support, then the tools in Second Step® programs will likely suffice. If instead you want to gather specific data to help evaluate the effectiveness of your implementation or map out individual plans for social-emotional and academic growth, then it may be worth your while to invest in an assessment tool designed to capture very specific metrics.

  • How much time and money do you plan to allocate to the process?

    Investing in assessment might improve accountability and continuous improvement, but keep in mind that the cost of the tool does not necessarily reflect its usefulness. A good general approach to selecting the right tool is to make sure you can gather data points that relate meaningfully to your strategic goals, such as decreasing bullying behaviors or building more positive student-teacher relationships.

  • Assessment Options by Goal and Tool

    There are different kinds of assessments that fit different goals.

    Needs Assessment

    What are your school’s SEL needs, including students’ SEL strengths and areas for growth?

    Implementation Fidelity

    How effectively is the program being used? Where can improvements be made?
    Included in Second Step® programs for PreK–Grade 8

    Formative Assessment

    How are students progressing toward SEL goals? What areas or topics need further instruction?
    Included in the Second Step® Elementary and Second Step® Middle School digital programs

    Summative Assessment

    Best for Program Evaluation
    What knowledge have students acquired about social-emotional skills and concepts taught in the program? Is the program having the intended impact on the school and students?

    kids talking in class with teacher observing

    In the Second Step Elementary and Second Step Middle School digital programs, each unit ends with a performance task. These formative assessments are fun, engaging activities that allow students to demonstrate their learning from that unit and give educators an opportunity to monitor progress toward SEL goals.

    However, if your goal is to assess students’ social-emotional competencies, consider the assessments below. These all can be used for needs, formative, and summative assessments. As you review these options, remember that SEL competency assessments are a snapshot of one point in time in a lifelong journey.

    The Delaware Social-Emotional Competency Scale (DSECS-S) is designed to assess competency in social and emotional skills such as responsible decision-making, relationship skills, self-management, and social awareness. In the 16-item assessment, students in grades 3-12 self-report their responses, yielding data which reflects students’ perception of their own social-emotional abilities. The free digital assessment with automatic scoring is available in English and Spanish.

    • Grades: 3–12
    • Rating Type: Student self-report
    • Number of Questions: 16 items
    • Content Covered: Responsible decision-making, relationship skills, self-management, social awareness
    • Cost: Free digital version with automatic scoring
    • Translations: Spanish

    The Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) is a comprehensive tool designed to evaluate and promote social and emotional competence in K-8th grade students. Developed by the Devereux Center for Resilient Children, the DESSA is used to assess children’s social-emotional skills such as self-awareness, personal responsibility, optimistic thinking, decision-making, and more.

    • Grades: K–8
    • Rating Type: Teacher-report (K–8); Student self-report (6–8)
    • Number of Questions: 72 items
    • Content Covered: Self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, goal-directed behavior, relationship skills, personal responsibility, decision-making, optimistic thinking
    • Cost: Fee for administration and scoring
    • Translations: Spanish
    dessa logo

    Aperture’s DESSA-SSE (Second Step Edition) is an online version of the well-known Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA). It has been customized for Second Step Elementary to score and track changes in social-emotional competencies quickly and easily.
    Please note that the DESSA-SSE is intended for use with only Second Step Elementary classroom kits and not the Second Step Elementary digital program.

    • Grades: K–5
    • Rating Type: Teacher-report
    • Number of Questions: 36 items
    • Content Covered: Skills for learning, empathy, emotion management, problem-solving
    • Cost: Fee for administration and scoring
    • Translations: N/A
    Panorama Education

    Panorama Education’s SEL measurement platform aligns well with the Second Step family of programs. Customizable reports make it easy to analyze data by subgroups—such as race or ethnicity, gender, and Title I status—at the individual, class, grade, school, and district levels. Teacher surveys can be used for PreK–Grade 8. Student self-reports are available for Grades 3–8.

    • Grades: 3–12
    • Rating Type: Student self-report
    • Number of Questions: 2 items (Grades 3–5); 61 items (Grades 6–12)
    • Content Covered: Recommended scales: grit, growth mindset, self-management, social awareness, self-efficacy; Supplemental scales: learning strategies, social perspective taking, self-efficacy, emotion regulation, classroom effort
    • Cost: Fee for digital administration and scoring
    • Translations: Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese (traditional Chinese), Mandarin (simplified Chinese), French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Urdu, Vietnamese

    Developed by xSEL Labs, SELweb is a web-based system designed to assess key social-emotional skills that are associated with success in school and life and that are the targets of evidence-based social-emotional learning programs. SELweb directly assesses children’s understanding of others’ emotions and perspectives, their social problem-solving skills, and their self-control.

    • Grades: K–12
    • Rating Type: Direct assessment (K–8); Student self-report (6–12)
    • Number of Questions: Consult developer
    • Content covered: K–8: emotion recognition, social perspective-taking, social problem-solving, self-control; Grades 6–12: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making
    • Cost: Fee for administration and scoring
    • Translations: Spanish

    The Social-Emotional Assets and Resilience Scales (SEARS) comprise a comprehensive assessment tool designed to evaluate social and emotional competence in children and adolescents (K-12). Developed to provide educators, mental health professionals, and parents with a detailed understanding of a young person’s emotional strengths and areas for development, SEARS focuses on key dimensions such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

    • Grades: K–12
    • Rating Type: Teacher-report (K–12); Student self-report (3–12)
    • Number of Questions: 12 items (teacher-report short form); 35 items (student report)
    • Content Covered: Teacher-report: resilience; Student-report: self-regulation, social competence, empathy, responsibility
    • Cost: Fee for administration and scoring
    • Translations: N/A
    assessment teacher and students

    Addressing Common Challenges with SEL Assessment

    Findings from a 2011 broadly publicized study of universal SEL programs found that SEL works best when it’s part of a larger, coordinated effort to create a positive learning environment.2 Regardless of how rigorous your chosen assessment strategy is, it can be tricky to isolate and assess the factors contributing to or detracting from student success. We know from years of working with top-performing schools and from numerous studies that there are some key features to successful SEL implementation, including: whole-school adoption, well-trained staff, sequenced lessons that explicitly teach skills in age-appropriate ways, varied instructional strategies to engage diverse learning styles, and a focus on culturally relevant SEL, with tiered levels of intervention and support.

    Learn more on our blog about common assessment challenges and practical tips for creating a positive impact.

    Explore More Resources

    Second Step® Assessment Guides

    The guides below provide more detailed information about the different ways evaluations can be designed, how to match evaluation strategies to program goals, how to implement Second Step programs with fidelity, and how to use findings to improve outcomes.

    SEL Assessments Aligned to Second Step® Programs

    To learn how the skills taught in Second Step programs link to assessments and strategies in other programs, use the alignment charts below.

    1 Schools and districts are investing significantly in SEL programs because research shows that social-emotional competencies, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, contribute to academic and career success. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) led a multidisciplinary work group to better understand best practices for choosing and implementing SEL assessments. To learn more, visit:

    2 Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.