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Balanced Systems of Assessment: Supporting Students’ Social and Emotional Learning

Pacific | December 03, 2021

This blog is based on a REL Pacific webinar titled "Creating Balanced Systems of Assessment to Support Equitable Opportunities to Learn and Child Well-being" hosted on July 28, 2021 and presented by Katie Buckley from Teach for America, W. Christopher Brandt from the Center for Assessment, and Fern Yoshida from the Hawai?i Department of Education. You can view a recording of the webinar here.

Situating Social-Emotional Learning in Balanced Assessment Systems

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is defined as the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. 1 SEL is intended to foster skills, dispositions, and orientations, referred to as social-emotional competencies (SECs), that can help individuals achieve greater success in school and life. Research shows that SECs are related to increased academic achievement, career success, and overall health and well-being 2 and that SEL is important for both personal and collective well-being. 3

Diverse students working on environmental project together

In addition to teaching students SECs, focusing on adults’ SEL—and supporting the SECs of teachers, administrators, or policy-makers—can also increase their well-being and can in turn promote SEL among students through the modeling of SEL practices and by providing a more positive environment. 4

A system of assessments that includes a focus on social-emotional competencies can help educators establish and maintain an environment in which students can succeed. Positive student experiences such as an intellectually rigorous learning environment, physical and psychological safety, meaningful classroom work and discourse, opportunities to learn and recover from mistakes, and feelings of being seen and respected by peers and adults have been shown to result in positive student outcomes, such as intellectual curiosity, a sense of agency, self-love, empathy, and meaningful connections with others. 5

Holistic Systems of Assessment to Support Whole-Child Development

A holistic system of assessment expands the notion of student success to include social, emotional, and physical well-being in addition to academic success. 6 A holistic approach to assessment can support more equitable learning environments, promote students’ SECs, and improve students’ academic, social, and emotional learning outcomes. In practice, holistic systems of assessment consider school stakeholders’ feedback on what constitutes a successful student and citizen, connecting these positive outcomes to required inputs that are then implemented as part of the system of assessment. For example, if physical health is an important community value, a holistic system of assessment would include physical health as an outcome, and the data collected by the assessment would be used to inform decisions about needed supports that could be implemented, such as access to exercise facilities and equipment for students and health and nutrition education as part of the curriculum.

The four steps that schools and local education agencies can take to support holistic assessment are:

  1. Establish a vision: Consider what your portrait of a graduate looks like. What long term goals do you have for your students after they graduate? 7 Having a clear idea of the skills that your community would like students to have to be college, career, and life ready can serve as a starting point for designing your assessment system to support student competencies that extend beyond academic performance.
  2. Plan for implementation:
    • Develop a theory of action: A theory of action allows a local education agency to cast a wide view of its education system and begin to specify relationships between the vision of a graduate established in step one and general strategies that may be useful in achieving that vision. This could involve identifying key social-emotional competencies that your system will prioritize.
    • Create a logic model: A logic model allows the local education agency to operationalize a theory of action, drawing specific connections between the activities they will implement and the outcomes they want to achieve. A logic model will outline discrete steps that will link system activities (inputs), specifying resources that the local education agency would need for their inputs, to the intended short-, mid-, and long-term outcomes for students. The logic model can identify the key SEL outcomes that the assessment system should measure and monitor, which should be aligned to the SECs identified in the theory of action.
    • Draw up an implementation plan: The implementation plan identifies actionable components of the logic model that leverage the available resources, assigns ownership of tasks to different departments, and establishes timelines for both initial implementation of the system as well as ongoing cycles of data collection, analysis, and decision-making.
  3. Create a measurement infrastructure: Data collection is an important part of assessment, as it allows schools and local education agencies to monitor implementation and outcomes. Having processes in place to measure data from schools is important for supporting holistic assessment systems. This measurement infrastructure can include surveys, observations, and student records that measure the inputs and outcomes defined in the logic model.
  4. Evaluate and improve the system: Analyze data gathered by the measurement infrastructure, looking for signs that the implementation plan is supporting the local education agency’s vision. When first implementing the system of assessment, it is best to start small and test the theory of action, then iterate on the activities that were implemented in order to address any areas of need identified in the assessment data, and test again. 8

An Example in Practice: Supporting Students’ Social and Emotional Learning Through Assessment Within a Multi-Tiered System of Support in Hawai?i

The Hawai?i Department of Education developed the Hawai?i Multi-Tiered System of Support (HMTSS) as a holistic system of assessment that focuses on whole-child development. This system of assessment incorporates academic, behavioral, physical, and SEL domains to promote healthy student development and achievement by gathering data on students’ social-emotional development via surveys. Student voice and well-being data are gathered through student perception surveys, SEL student surveys, and check-in surveys. Additionally, family voice is accounted for via stakeholder surveys.

The student perception survey gathers data on the overall climate and culture of schools. To supplement these data, stakeholder surveys were administered to families and students as part of a needs-sensing effort to better address student needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the Hawai?i DOE has implemented a state-wide SEL student survey, which examines students’ perceptions of their SECs. Student well-being check-in surveys also allow for progress monitoring throughout the year. Finally, teachers are provided with professional learning activities and strategies that are directly related to aggregated student survey data, which are analyzed to provide insights into how systems and practices might lead to positive student development and to systemically address student needs within the tiered framework.

For example, a survey showed that 51 percent of students were able to describe their feelings, meaning that about half of students (49 percent) could benefit from support in finding the right language to describe their feelings. Some potential ways of addressing this are to provide daily check-ins for students, use a mood meter to support students in describing their emotions, or to provide professional learning opportunities for teachers on how to help students recognize, label, and manage their emotions. Hawai?i’s multi-tiered system of support considers students’ knowledge, skills, and mindsets when crafting supportive environments and selecting programs and practices. It consists of three tiers, offering more focused, intensive support in higher tiers, and general, group-oriented support in lower tiers.

  • Tier 1: School-wide culturally-responsive practices and policies that include SEL instruction and integration with academics and behavior.
  • Tier 2: Individual or small-group instruction to target low-level SEL skills and mindset needs.
  • Tier 3: Intensive support for individual students with significant, crisis-level SEL needs.

Additional Resources

For help in identifying and evaluating assessments, including those for measuring SEL and other aspects of well-being, refer to the Center for Assessment’s Interim Assessment Toolkit (phase 1 and phase 2), which can help you identify your needs, find assessments that align to them, and select assessments that are relevant, of high quality, and appropriate for your system.

1 CASEL. (n.d.[a]). What is social-emotional learning? https://casel.org/what-is-sel/

2 Damon E. Jones, Mark Greenberg, Max Crowley. (2015). Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 11 (November, 2015): pp. 2283–2290. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630

3 Greenberg, M.T., Domitrovich, C.E., Weissberg, R.P., & Durlak, J.A. (2017). Social and emotional learning as a public health approach to education. The Future of Children 27(1), 13–32. doi:10.1353/foc.2017.0001 teamat/hru009

4 Cipriano, C., & Brackett, M. (2020). Teachers are anxious and overwhelmed. They need SEL now more than ever. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-04-07-teachers-are-anxious-and-overwhelmed-they-need-sel-now-more-than-ever

5 Ibid.

6 Schneider, J., Jacobsen, R., White, R., and Gehlbach, H. (2017). Building a better measure of school quality. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(7), 43–48.

7Quigley, K. (n.d.) A comprehensive guide to a portrait of a graduate [blog]. Panorama Education. https://www.panoramaed.com/blog/comprehensive-guide-portrait-of-a-graduate#:~:text=%20Strategies %20for%20Portrait%20of%20a%20Graduate%20Implementation,to%20life%20across%20the%20community. %20Most...%20More%20

8 Schneider, J., Jacobsen, R., White, R. S. & Gehlbach, H. (2017). Building a better measure of school quality. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(7), 43–48.

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