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SEL checkups at school

Schools more closely assess the social-emotional strengths of students and the impact of new programs
  • CHARACTER STUDY—Students at Olathe Public Schools rated themselves as strong in social awareness but expressed less confidence about grit and perseverance, according to an SEL assessment conducted by the Kansas district.
  • TESTING GAINS—Washoe County School District leaders say the assessment the district created to measure social-emotional development has strengthened student/teacher relationships.

Their surroundings may be idyllic, but educators in one Cape Cod district found themselves confronting the struggles experienced by systems across the nation. Barnstable Public Schools (5,300 students) had over several years seen an uptick in at-risk students and children with complex needs.

This, along with promising research from organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, propelled the Massachusetts district—like so many others—to adopt a full-throttle social-emotional learning initiative.

But how can districts measure progress when the results can be far less black and white than the outcome of a math test? Enter SEL assessments, which, though varied and evolving, are providing educators with actionable insight into the impact of their efforts.

“We knew we wanted a strength-based assessment—something that would tell us what students do well and where they need more support,” says Gina Hurley, director of student services, about the year Barnstable spent choosing an assessment.

Catching a crisis (before it’s a crisis)

Barnstable’s leaders sought a tool that was not difficult to understand or implement, and they selected Devereux Students Strengths Assessment (DESSA), which is one of the tools emerging as a gold standard in the still-evolving SEL world.


SIDEBAR: SEL samples


DESSA—originally developed at the Devereux Center for Resilient Children and now the assessment portion of Aperture Education’s SEL system—is a standardized measure of the social and emotional competencies of K12 students. Teachers initially assess their students by filling out an online, eight-question screener called the DESSA Mini.

Occasionally, a student flagged by the Mini as needing intervention no longer stands out once the teacher answers a lengthier, 70-question survey (see sidebar below for sample DESSA questions).

But when the student still appears to need assistance, a group of educators at the school level makes a plan that includes strategies such as working with the child in a small group or individually to reteach specific SEL lessons or assigning the student an adult mentor.


SIDEBAR: ROI on SEL


An important point: Hurley says her district doesn’t use DESSA to pick and choose which students get SEL curriculum. All learners get the instruction, but some students may get more support or more targeted interventions such as a daily check-in and check-out.

“This is simply one good tool that increases the capacity of teachers to see when a crisis is starting,” she says.

After only a year of the SEL program being in full force, Barnstable has already witnessed a drop in the number of kids flagged for higher-level intervention. That indicates a high-quality, well-implemented SEL curriculum—as well as districtwide dedication to embedding SEL principles into the culture of each school, Hurley says.

Student voices generate better conversations

Many districts choose assessments that rely on student self-perception of SEL competencies. Washoe County School District (64,200 students) in Nevada created a free, open-source option called Social and Emotional Competency Assessments.


ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Vendors discuss the keys to and challenges of SEL assessments


“The results have definitely led to better teacher and educator conversations, and also to students talking about their own data to one another, which has led to many really great changes,” says Ben Hayes, chief assessment and accountability officer. “And then we’ve been able to connect the SEL competency data to academic outcome.”

The results of the 15- to 20-minute survey (see sidebar at left for sample questions), which students take using an iPad or computer, supplied the district with loads of predictive information.

“We’ve found out, for example, that the students with higher self-reported SEL competencies are more likely to graduate; they get, on average, higher test scores; they miss fewer days of school; and are less likely to be suspended,” says Hayes.

Educators use the assessments to tailor curriculum to student needs, and the results have led to increases in counseling services and family outreach efforts, and the formation of new student groups.

Washoe’s graduation rate has gone from 66 percent in 2012 to a current 84 percent. Educators won’t chalk up all the gains to SEL, but Hayes says SEL has played a significant role and deploying the assessment as a listening tool has been integral.

Capturing the silent data

When the superintendent of Hawaii’s Central District of Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua (14,500 students) made student voice a priority, educators sought to support and measure it with a SEL assessment. The district selected Panorama’s assessments, which ask students to weigh in on their own competencies.

They allow teachers to hear about student strengths and weaknesses and to tailor curriculum toward the weaker competencies.

The SEL assessments are often coupled with school climate surveys, which offer the children an opportunity to tell adults where there may be culture or safety issues at school. “Our SEL assessment became this great way for our schools to incorporate that piece—student voice—into the decision-making for a school,” says Korene Horibata, district educational specialist.

In Kansas, leaders at Olathe Public Schools (29,600 students) chose Panorama to align SEL with Kansas Can, a statewide education initiative that calls for students to express themselves. Results indicated that most Olathe students felt strong in social awareness but shaky about grit and perseverance.

This has changed the way teachers engage with students, Assistant Superintendent Jessica Dain says. During regular instruction, teachers now guide students on overcoming challenges or successfully completing assignments when they feel overwhelmed or uncertain.

“Most importantly, it provides what I call ‘silent data’—the information that would typically go unmeasured and unsupported in the classroom,” Dain says.

Like many educators, she’s concerned about the child who sits in the back of the classroom and turns in their homework, but rarely says anything, she adds. “This tool is able to get even that child’s voice.”

SEL should not be high stakes

Current tools garner results based on perceptions, whether from students or adults, but SEL assessments may soon ask students to respond to simulated social-emotional scenarios, says R. Keeth Matheny, a high school SEL teacher in Austin USD and a co-author of the School-Connect high school SEL curriculum.

Yet there’s still nothing like gathering hard numbers, Matheny adds. “Are graduation rates up? Is chronic absenteeism down? Ultimately, these are the things we want to see change.” These factors—called “socially valid indicators”—may take a couple of years to fully manifest once a SEL initiative becomes entrenched.

At the same time, it’s critical to assess on an ongoing basis, says Paul LeBuffe, the creator of DESSA and now a vice president at Aperture. Technology makes it fairly easy and affordable to gather that data in the fall, teach the SEL curriculum and do another survey assessment in the winter and/or the spring. (A full-service provider usually charges about $3 to $4 per child per school year.)

That’s how you gauge the quality of the curriculum and alter instruction to fill in detected social-emotional gaps. And in the interest of transparency, most educators believe the assessment information should be shared with students and parents. Researchers bristle, however, at the thought that SEL assessments could be used in any high-stakes scenario of rewards or penalties.

“We don’t believe teachers should be held accountable for SEL scores or schools should somehow be rated on SEL assessment results,” says LeBuffe.


Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer in Southern California.