Solving the Riddle of Alignment: ACT SEL and CASEL

Co-authors: Alea Thompson and Dana Murano, PhD

When we ask school leaders what they look for in a social and emotional learning (SEL) product, CASEL alignment is almost invariably mentioned.

CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, is the nation’s leader in supporting and influencing SEL practices and policies, and their five-competency framework has become the predominant framework in social and emotional learning in the United States.

These five competencies are Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Responsible Decision-Making, Relationship Skills, and Social Awareness. When school leaders want a CASEL-aligned SEL tool, they are seeking something that teaches and/or measures these competencies.

For ACT, both our Tessera assessment and our Mawi Learning SEL curriculum are CASEL aligned. The alignment can be seen below.

CASEL Alignment Wheel

But this begs a very important question….

WHAT THE HECK IS ALIGNMENT?!?!?!?!?

What does it mean to say that something is aligned to the CASEL framework? Is it okay for someone to claim alignment with CASEL if they teach/measure one of the five CASEL competencies? How about two? Three? Four? Or is it necessary to teach/measure all five before a tool is considered aligned?

And even if one claims to be aligned to a specific CASEL competency, what are the standards for determining the veracity of that alignment?

Take CASEL’s definition of their Relationship Skills competency, “The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.”

If an SEL curriculum teaches a lesson on communication, is that lesson aligned with the CASEL Relationship Skills competency? What about the other components of the competency, such as cooperating, resisting social pressure, and offering help? If a curriculum teaches communication but doesn’t teach these other components, is the curriculum not aligned?

In sum, claiming alignment is a challenge for at least two reasons. First, it is unclear whether an aligned curriculum/assessment should teach or measure all five of the CASEL competencies or if teaching and measuring a subset of the competencies is sufficient. Second, because each of the CASEL definitions contain many components, even a curriculum/assessment that is determined to be aligned with a CASEL competency may only teach/assess one small part of that competency.

Aligning ACT® Tessera® to CASEL

We faced these challenges when we attempted to align our own SEL assessment, ACT Tessera, to the CASEL framework. Our answer was to rely on a sound scientific methodology.

Specifically, we did our alignment by having five SEL experts read the ACT Tessera and CASEL competency definitions and indicate whether they thought a specific ACT Tessera competency was aligned to a specific CASEL competency. We then calculated the level of agreement between experts. To avoid bias, the experts each did their alignments independently. An ACT Tessera competency was considered aligned if experts independently and unanimously agreed on the alignment, and not aligned if experts did not agree. A brief report on our alignment can be found here. The alignment at a glance can be seen below.

Aligning ACT’s Mawi Learning SEL Curriculum to CASEL

Like ACT Tessera, the ACT’s Mawi Learning SEL curriculum has been aligned to the CASEL framework. Our middle school Turbo Leader curriculum has been selected for inclusion in CASEL’s forthcoming Effective Social and Emotional Programs Guide. The CASEL guide identifies and rates well-designed, evidence-based SEL programs that align with their five competency clusters.

To establish alignment, our subject matter experts focused on a skill-to-skill alignment between the CASEL and Mawi competencies. For example, our Turbo competency encourages students to exercise agency by taking actions that improve their lives and the lives of others. In that competency, students learn how to approach problems with a solutions-oriented lens, recognize their strengths as a leader, and motivate themselves to take action in challenging situations.

Each of these three distinct skills maps to a different CASEL skill in three separate competencies: recognizing strengths in Self-Awareness, self-motivation in Self-Management, and solving problems in Responsible Decision-Making. In doing our mapping, we were able to produce a clearer and more application-oriented alignment that focuses on the actual skills students will learn and use in the curriculum (shown below).

Taking Ownership of Alignment

Although we are confident in our alignment methods, you should not believe us just because you are reading this blog. It is important to dig deeper into alignment claims. It is an unfortunate fact, but there is not always transparency when a SEL provider claims CASEL alignment. What can be done? Some advice is provided below.

  • Create your own standards for alignment. Have criteria for alignment in mind before starting your investigation. What counts for acceptable alignment? What doesn’t count? You be the judge rather than simply accepting what others are telling (ahem…selling) you.
  • Ask for and compare definitions. Comparing competency labels is not enough. For example, one definition of cooperation may be very different than another. Ask how competencies are defined and compare them carefully. The report that accompanies our ACT Tessera to CASEL alignment includes definitions of all competencies to ensure transparency and provide users an opportunity to examine whether they agree, or disagree, with our alignment.
  • Ask about the alignment method. It is important that an SEL provider can tell you exactly how they aligned their product to CASEL. Was the alignment method rigorously and systematically conducted by experts or was it done simply by marketers for marketing purposes?
  • Avoid the allure of colorful pictures. While colorful, clear, and intuitive-looking graphics are useful in demonstrating alignment pictorially, one should not mistake a nice-looking alignment for a valid alignment. Humans are inherently biased to believe that things that are easy to read are also more likely to be true but knowing that this bias exists can help us avoid it.

As the SEL market grows, and as CASEL becomes more influential, we will see a continued proliferation of products that will attempt to “hitch their wagons” to CASEL to demonstrate their value. As such, it will become more and more important for customers to look deeper into claims of alignment. Although pretty pictures are nice, one should not judge a book (or an alignment) by its cover.

Jeremy Burrus, PhD

Jeremy Burrus, PhD

Senior Director, Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning Research Jeremy Burrus is the Senior Director of ACT’s Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (SEALs). Before coming to ACT, he was a Principal Research Scientist at ProExam’s Center for Innovative Assessments, and prior to that he was a Research Scientist at Educational Testing Service. He graduated with a PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2006, and was a post-doctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School in New York City from 2006-2008. His main research interests are in developing innovative assessments of social and emotional learning skills, cognitive biases, and cross-cultural competence.