A Formative Approach to SEL Assessment

Main Author: Jason Way
Supporting Authors: Alex Casillas, Jeremy Burrus
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has risen in popularity and relevance in the last 10-15 years; perhaps never so relevant as in current times, where we are all struggling with the social and emotional impacts of a global pandemic. Much of the discussion around SEL centers (correctly, we think) around how to improve students’ SEL skills. An important component in improving SEL skills is assessment. Assessment can tell us where a student has an area of strength, and where a student has an area in need of improvement. After we’ve provided SEL training, an assessment can tell us if our efforts were successful. So what is the process of SEL assessment and why is a formative approach well-suited to implementing an effective SEL assessment system? Keep reading, and we’ll explain our thinking.

What is Formative Assessment?
There is sometimes a lack of clarity over what exactly formative assessment is. It is often defined by that which it is not: end-of-term, high-stakes, summative assessment. Perhaps the most common view is that it is merely a low-stakes assessment meant to give feedback to students. This is generally true of formative assessments; however, this framing leaves out some important components, as described by Black and Wiliam [i]:

“The purpose of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback to instructors for improving their teaching and to students for improving their learning; formative assessments tend to be low stakes. In contrast, the purpose of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit, course, or term of study by comparing the results against some standard or benchmark; summative assessments tend to be high stakes.”

Thus, formative assessment has two key elements:

  • Ongoing feedback…
  • That is given for the purpose of improvement

We’ll return to these shortly.

Typical SEL Assessment
The good news, if you are interested in a formative approach to SEL assessment, is that SEL assessment typically already includes some formative aspects. SEL assessment is predominantly low-stakes and intended to give students feedback in order to develop skills that we know are important for success. However, a one-time assessment, even if low-stakes, accompanied by a report giving general feedback on one’s standing on several SEL skills is unlikely to “move the needle” much in terms of helping that student improve. Fortunately, taking a formative approach that emphasizes ongoing feedback for the purpose of improvement can bolster the impact of an SEL assessment system on students’ SEL skills. Let’s examine what such an approach might look like.*

A Formative Approach to SEL Assessment
The second key element of formative assessment was that it is given for the purpose of improvement.  This means that assessment feedback needs to be actionable and tied to curriculum or other learning resources. And these need to tie back to the next cycle of assessment to measure whether improvement and/or learning is in fact taking place. In order for this cycle to play out as intended, teacher professional development is critical. It would be very difficult to teach students SEL skills if teachers did not have those skills themselves or did not know how to deliver that content and interpret assessment results in an effective way. Therefore, professional development is necessary to ensure that teachers understand and can model the skills that they are trying to pass on to their students.

Designing Formative SEL Assessment Systems
To thoughtfully design and develop formative assessment systems, it is important to follow design-based approaches, better known as principled approaches or evidence-centered design. These approaches provide guidance for considering the context in which the assessment is given along with the actual content of the assessment, such as who the appropriate population is, how the assessment will be delivered, and how the information can inform the purpose for designing and developing a measure (e.g., diagnosis, intervention, training). Principled approaches address these important considerations and allow for assessment development across a variety of content areas with a broad range of assessment types.

It is also valuable to have a theory of action (a.k.a. theory of change) that articulates the intended purpose, users, uses, and consequences of the assessment and allows designers to keep this information in mind throughout design and development process. A theory of action is a way to describe the types of actions (in the form of an intervention, program, coordinated initiative, or solution) that bring about the intended outcomes and consequences of an initiative, such as a formative assessment system.

More than “Just an Assessment”
We’ve alluded to this a couple of times now, but if there is one takeaway from this post, it should be that you need more than “just an assessment” to help students improve their SEL skills. A well-designed, valid assessment should be just one part of a comprehensive formative approach that includes instruction and teacher PD. This approach should provide periodic assessment and just-in-time instruction to make sure that students are receiving the necessary support right when they need it most. As Robert Good noted[ii], formative assessment is a process, not a product.

At ACT, we completely agree with Good’s comment. We believe that a holistic approach is optimal for helping individuals to prepare for the challenges of a constantly changing world; this is the reason that we advanced the ACT Holistic Framework™, a more comprehensive description of the knowledge and skills that individuals need to succeed in school and work. When it comes to SEL knowledge and skills, we believe success can best be achieved through a formative approach. We offer solutions that include assessment, student curriculum, and professional development (see Figure 1), and that, when used together, comprise a system designed to provide ongoing feedback and help drive continuous improvement.

*Note: For more detail on this approach to SEL assessment, see Casillas, A., Kyllonen, P., & Way, J. D. (2019). Preparing students for the future of work: A formative assessment approach. In F. L. Oswald, T. Behrens, & L. Foster (Eds.) Workforce Readiness. New York, NY: Routledge.

[i] Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: principles, policy & practice5(1), 7-74.
[ii] Good, R. (2011). Formative use of assessment information: It’s a process, so let’s say what we mean. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation16(3), 1-6.

Jason Way, PhD

Jason Way, PhD

Jason Way is a senior research psychologist in the Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. His research focuses on the assessment of the social and emotional skills that impact important academic and work outcomes.