Choosing and Using SEL Competency Assessments:

What Schools and Districts Need to Know

measuring SEL and RAND

Step 2: Plan the role of assessment

Before choosing an SEL competency assessment, it is important to identify the intended use of that assessment. Uses of data from SEL competency assessments can fall into two broad categories:

Formative assessments are assessments for learning.

Summative assessments are assessments of learning.

Rather than thinking about these categories as specific types of assessments, it is better to think about them as different ways of using assessments. It’s worth noting that certain types of assessments, such as large-scale standardized tests, are likely to be more useful for summative purposes, while classroom observations or assessment rubrics are more likely to be useful for formative purposes. However, many assessments can serve both purposes to some degree.

Put simply, the differences between formative and summative assessment can be summarized as:

Formative assessment is typically done frequently and is designed to provide information to guide instruction or practice.

Summative assessment is done less frequently and focuses on determining what learning has already occurred, including whether a learning standard or expectation has been met or whether a program or curriculum has been effective. 

Although these differences may at first seem distinct, they can be far less distinct in practice, especially because some measures can be employed for both formative and summative uses.

Below are examples of specific formative and summative uses of SEL competency assessments. Readers may notice that some of these examples could be described as either formative or summative, depending on the details of the example.

Formative uses of SEL competency assessment

  • Monitor student progress toward SEL learning goals or standards.
  • Promote effective SEL instruction and target instruction for students around specific competencies.
  • Create an instructional plan based on a classroom profile of competencies.
  • Elevate student voice and promote student engagement and agency.
  • Improve school and district implementation strategies based on staff and students’ needs.
  • Foster equitable learning environments by revealing disparities in the degree to which students’ needs are met. 

Summative uses of SEL competency assessment

  • Evaluate the impact on students’ competencies of a particular SEL classroom program or practice.
  • Report to stakeholders, including funders, families, and the community, about progress of SEL initiatives.

It is critical that stakeholders be clear from the start about their intended uses of assessment, as this has important implications for what kinds of measures are best to select and the sources of reliability and validity evidence that are relevant. With any assessment of SEL competencies (or student knowledge in general), there is some degree of uncertainty in the interpretation of scores.[1] Different intended uses have different tolerances for uncertainty. In general, the greater the consequences for individuals associated with score use, the less tolerance there is for uncertainty.

Summative uses tend to be associated with higher stakes, so assessments intended for these uses will require more rigorous evidence of reliability and validity. Ultimately, we recommend that practitioners make use of the AWG SEL Assessment Guide and the RAND Assessment Finder and work with vendors or developers to learn more about what sources of validity evidence are available to support their intended use.

To learn more about this, consult Appendix A, which details the technical aspects of validity and reliability to consider when choosing a measure.


[1] The technical term for this level of uncertainty is called measurement error.