Choosing and Using SEL Competency Assessments:

What Schools and Districts Need to Know

measuring SEL and RAND

Step 4: Review the assessment options

A variety of resources have been developed to support SEL competency assessment. This document was written to complement two tools that can support practitioners in reviewing assessment options: The AWG SEL Assessment Guide and the RAND Assessment Finder.

SEL competency assessments take several forms. Each method has its advantages and limitations, and no single method is inherently preferable or superior. However, certain methods are preferable for different classifications of SEL competencies (e.g., awareness vs skills) and different developmental levels. These various methods are described below.

Self-report survey questionnaires and rating scales typically require students to rate their own abilities on an ordinal rating scale. This type of assessment is especially useful for collecting information about student awareness (i.e., beliefs or thought processes such as feeling empathy and social awareness), which is not easily assessed using other methods that rely on external observers.

Example: A survey measuring self-awareness that asks students to report the extent to which they know when their feelings are making it hard for them to focus.



  • Can be susceptible to biases such as:

Memory effects (respondents may not accurately recall behaviors or actions).

Social desirability biases (e.g., respondents may provide answers they think are “correct,” rather than answers that reflect their beliefs or actions).

Reference biases (e.g., students’ self-ratings are influenced by the competencies of others with whom they interact; some research suggests that reference bias is a threat to validity of these measures, whereas other studies have failed to uncover substantial reference bias).

  • Require respondents to be able to read and interpret the items, so most are not suitable for preschool or early elementary students.
  • May not be accessible to portions of a school or district’s student population unless they are translated into additional languages and additional accommodations are made for students with special needs related to reading and/or language comprehension.


Interview protocols require an interviewer to ask questions or to make statements that prompt interviewees to discuss or explore a prescribed set of topics or issues. Like self-report questionnaires, interviews can be used to collect information about SEL competencies related to awareness (beliefs or thought processes).

Example: The Berkeley Puppet Interview employs hand puppets to probe students’ perceptions of their family environment and their teacher, school, and peer relationships.


  • They allow for complex and in-depth responses.
  • They can surface issues and themes that may not be captured through questionnaires.
  • Do not rely on students reading abilities as self-report surveys do.


  • They are difficult to administer at scale, requiring considerable time and resources for training, conducting interviews, and coding interview data.
  • They suffer from many of the same limitations as self-report questionnaires, such as memory effects, social desirability bias, reference bias, and the potential for faking.


Observation Protocols and Rating Scales. An external observer, such as a teacher, parent, or clinician, evaluates student behaviors using a rating scale or a structured observation protocol and observation rubric. Such instruments can be useful for assessing students’ observable behavior and skills (e.g., self-management and relationship skills).

Example: The Social Skills Improvement System SEL version is a rating scale that can be completed by teachers, who provide ratings of the social skills of their students.


They do not rely on respondents to be accurate reporters of their own SEL competencies, which is beneficial with younger students, who may not yet have the required literacy skills, reading proficiency, or personal insight to accurately complete a survey questionnaire.


  • They can be burdensome to administer when they rely on external observers. Resources need to be invested in training, and if a single classroom teacher is responsible for using a rating scale with every student in his/her class, administration and scoring can take a considerable amount of time.
  • External observers’ ratings can also be subject to reporting biases, including reference bias and unconscious bias (aka implicit bias) in expectations and/or assessment of performance.
  • It is difficult to use these measures to capture information on students’ awareness or beliefs.
  • Limited to reports in one setting (the classroom in which the teacher sees the student).
  • Potential for misinterpreting/misattributing source of behavior.


Performance-based assessments provide structured opportunities for students to engage in complex, real-world or simulated tasks that can be used as direct measures of students’ SEL skills. These assessments can take many forms, including discipline-embedded projects and game-based simulations.

Example: ZooU is a web-based game that provides students with a variety of scenarios, all set in a zoo, that can be used to measure students’ communication, cooperation, and empathy skills.


  • Designed to approximate real-world conditions.
  • Typically do not rely on subjective judgment, as questionnaires do.


  • Can require substantial investments in training.
  • Significant investment in time for administration and scoring.

The table below shows which instrument types are best suited to the different classifications of competencies listed in Table 1.

Table 2. Suitability of assessments by competency classification

Type of assessment Intrapersonal awareness Intrapersonal skills Interpersonal awareness Interpersonal skills
Examples of competencies Growth mindset, self-efficacy Self-control, goal setting, stress management Empathy, social awareness Social perspective taking, collaborative problem solving
Self-report survey questionnaires X X
Interview protocols X X X
Observations and rating scales X X
Performance-based X X


Where does academic and behavioral data fit in?

Most schools collect a wide variety of data that are relevant to understanding students’ SEL competencies. Data on factors such as students’ grade point average (GPA), attendance, chronic absenteeism, disciplinary rates, and graduation rates capture aspects of student behavior that may provide relevant information about SEL—for example, information about chronic absenteeism can be useful for understanding students’ school engagement. Data from these sources can be useful to examine alongside SEL assessment data, but they should not be interpreted by themselves as evidence of students’ SEL competencies.


[1] Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich, & Gullotta, 2015

[2] Nathanson, Rivers, Flynn, & Brackett, 2016