Choosing and Using SEL Competency Assessments:

What Schools and Districts Need to Know

measuring SEL and RAND

Considerations for SEL competency assessment

Although measuring students’ SEL competencies can provide many benefits, there are several considerations to bear in mind:

SEL competency assessment is an emerging area. The field of SEL competency assessment is growing rapidly, and a lot of promising research and development is underway. However, there is less consistency across frameworks and less clarity about terminology and developmental progressions than in more established fields. Also, few SEL assessments have gone through the validation process typical of most large-scale academic assessments. Resources like the RAND Assessment Finder and the AWG SEL Assessment Guide can help to determine which available measures are backed by evidence of reliability and validity for particular purposes. See Appendix A for more information about validity and reliability. It is also important to consider that most SEL assessments were not specifically developed for the purpose of comparing schools, and little research exists to determine whether currently available assessments have the precision necessary to make such comparisons.[1]

Strength-based approach vs. diagnostic approach. We strongly recommended that practitioners not take a diagnostic approach that uses assessments of students’ SEL competencies to screen for deficits (e.g., behavioral or emotional problems). SEL competency assessments are not the appropriate tool for this critical function.

Instead, it is important to take a strength-based approach, which focuses on students’ strengths and assets to promote positive development and prevent problems from emerging. This approach distinguishes SEL from related disciplines. Unlike the diagnostic approach used in the mental health field, SEL emphasizes promoting the development of all students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes (i.e., competencies).

A strength-based approach assumes that competencies equip students with the positive relationships and effective coping mechanisms that support healthy development and success. They also protect against problems emerging from stress and adversity and can help students thrive in their future pursuits. For practitioners looking to identify students in need of additional support based on emotional or behavioral problems, we recommend using tools developed specifically for this purpose.

Equity and cultural factors. Another important consideration when assessing students’ SEL competencies is to ensure that issues of equity have been identified and attended to in both the selection of SEL competencies and the development, validation, and use of measures (see the Great Lakes Equity Center Guidance for more on SEL and equity).

In the SEL Framework Series brief  titled “Equity and Social-Emotional Learning: A Cultural Analysis,” Robert Jagers and colleagues explore how each of the CASEL 5 competencies should be reconsidered through the lens of equity.

If an assessment consists of items or tasks that are heavily influenced by values of a dominant culture, but may not be shared by other cultures, the results of the assessment may fail to capture strengths and perspectives of students from all cultures.

It is also important for schools and districts to guard against the presence of unconscious bias (a.k.a., implicit bias) in assessment, especially when using teacher or adult rating of students. Emerging research indicates that unconsciously held differences in expectations of students of differing races can lead to subsequent inaccuracies in teachers’ evaluation of students’ abilities or performance, as well as unintended differences in how instruction is delivered. Research shows that these differences can ultimately contribute to disparities in student learning and achievement.[2] Schools and districts should provide training to teachers and school staff on how to recognize implicit bias, and guard against its influence on student learning.

In interpreting results, we also strongly encourage educators and policymakers to consider the context in which students live and learn (i.e., family background, school culture and climate), because context has considerable influence on their social-emotional development (see Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World, 2017). When planning in response to assessment data, it is essential to consider how available environmental supports might be leveraged and environmental sources of adversity addressed. Additional equity considerations are further discussed in the sections that follow.

Concerns with high-stakes use. We do not recommend that SEL competency measures be used for high-stakes decisions and/or high-stakes accountability systems, such as a state accountability system or a teacher evaluation system. Decades of research demonstrate how attaching high stakes to student achievement test results in an accountability system can increase the risk of score corruption.[3] There is particular risk of corruption with non-performance-based assessments, such as self-report surveys or teacher-reported ratings, since students and teachers can easily manipulate their responses. Furthermore, the field of SEL competency assessment is nascent compared to other types of educational assessments, and few measures have undergone the kind of rigorous validation research necessary to be used in high-stakes decision making.[4]

The developmental aspect of SEL. As with all learning processes, SEL is inherently developmental. Competency evolves over time from less to more sophisticated, it is often correlated with general maturity, and each person’s sequence of learning can be different. From PreK to adulthood, people’s brains are continually changing as their thought processes become increasingly complex and their cognitive abilities more sophisticated. Thus, children, adolescents, and adults vary over time in how they both learn and manifest SEL competencies.[5]

Practitioners can ensure that their approach to SEL is developmentally appropriate by implementing frameworks that are age-appropriate, clearly articulate how competencies develop over time (i.e., developmental sequence), and offer implementation supports that attend to development (e.g., SEL learning progressions, model learning standards, and aligned assessment tools).

Children’s developmental levels have important implications for assessing their SEL competencies, informing both the mode of assessment (e.g., self-report, peer-rating, teacher/adult-rating) and the competencies that may be most important to assess. For example, the age and developmental level of a child can influence the precision and reliability of a self-report measure of SEL competence. Younger children have less ability to accurately self-evaluate compared to their older counterparts. Thus, many measures of early elementary-aged (e.g., PreK-3rd grade) children rely on ratings or observations conducted by adults (e.g., teacher, counselor, and/or parent).

Particular modes of SEL competency assessments (e.g., self-report, peer-rating, teacher/adult-rating) are also linked to certain developmental levels through the competencies that tend to emerge during a particular developmental period. For example, competencies such as having a “growth mindset” tend to emerge during adolescence.[6] Since mindsets are internal processes/characteristics, without clear behavioral (observable) indicators, their measurement tends to necessarily rely on self-report.

SEL Competency Development and Assessment in Elementary, Middle, and High School Students

Students’ SEL competency develops over time, and the measures and methods used for assessing those competencies should reflect this.[6]

Elementary Grades (middle childhood)

Students experience…

  • Growth in their abilities to self-reflect and self-regulate, including increased ability to plan and manage their emotions.
  • Emergence of metacognition – the ability to reflect-on one’s own thought processes.
  • Feelings of empathy and perspective-taking abilities, which become the foundation for interpersonal skills and positive social relationships.

Competencies are assessed…

  • Primarily through ratings and observations by teachers and adults, as students are not yet reliable reporters of their own abilities and might lack the necessary reading skills, especially in early grades (e.g., 3rd grade and younger). More accurate self-report by students may emerge in 4th or 5th  grade.
  • Some computer-based performance assessments (e.g., SELWeb and ZooU) offer opportunity to measure students’ competencies in elementary grades, including assessment of perspective-taking, emotion recognition, social problems solving, emotional regulation, communication, and cooperation.

Middle School Grades (early adolescence)

Students experience…

  • Continued growth in self-regulation, interpersonal knowledge and skills, and metacognition.
  • Emerging sense of group identity fostered by development of stronger peer relationships.
  • Emergence of various mindsets (e.g., growth mindset).

Competencies are assessed…

  • Self-report often used, as students’ capacity for self-reflection has typically developed at this stage.
  • Interviews may become increasingly valuable during this time period, as students’ thought processes become increasingly complex and sophisticated, leaving them equipped to provide more in-depth information in an interview.
  • Assessment methods that allow students to demonstrate their ability to use their SEL competencies in an applied setting (e.g., observation and/or rubrics assessments of performance in group projects).

High School Grades (middle adolescence)

Students experience…

  • Continued development of mindsets and knowledge of self (differentiated from others).
  • Emerging sense of values, which can manifest as skills like responsible decision-making.

Competencies are assessed…

  • Self-report often used, students’ capacity for self-reflection is well developed.
  • Interviews may become increasingly valuable, as they allow students to demonstrate both their breadth and depth of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and mindsets.
  • Assessment methods that allow students to demonstrate their ability to use their SEL competencies in an applied setting (e.g., observation and/or rubrics assessments of performance in group projects) may become increasingly valuable for determining whether their skills may be transferable to settings outside the classroom environment.

When the best mode of assessment does not align well with the developmental level of students and the competency being assessed, the resulting data may be less useful and potentially problematic. This is the case, for example, when trying to assess internal processes like “self-awareness” in young children. Although self-report tends to be better than external ratings for measuring intrapersonal competencies (e.g., self-awareness) that cannot be observed directly by others, young children may not be reliable reporters of their own abilities and may not have the reading skills needed to complete a self-report survey. Although challenges like this persist in the field today, ongoing research and development efforts offer promise for the future.

Taking a holistic view of competency development is essential. Student competency data should include intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that are being taught from PreK to 12. Competencies should also be examined alongside other related kinds of data, such as: adult SEL competencies (if available), school climate, implementation data, and other important student outcomes, such as attendance and academic achievement. Examining these data together is essential to understand how these factors may relate to each other, and ultimately to understand how, why, and when improvement occurs.


[1] Melnick, Cook-Harvey, & Darling-Hammond, 2017; Duckworth and Yeager, 2015

[2] Warikoo, Sinclair, Fei, & Jacoby- Senghor, 2016

[3] Hamilton, Stecher, & Yuan, 2012

[4] Duckworth & Yeager, 2015; Melnick, Cook-Harvey, & Darling-Hammond, 2017

[5] Denham, Wyatt, Bassett, Echeverria, & Knox, 2009; Nagaoka, Farrington, Ehrlich, & Heath, 2015

[6] Nagaoka, Farrington, Ehrlich, & Heath, 2015