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Social and Emotional Learning: Put Purpose First 

I recently spent the day with a group of 45 GEAR UP access professionals who were excited to be expanding their services—and their assessments—to include a new focus on social and emotional skill development.

As I moved table to table and spoke with them about their goals and motivations, there was remarkable consistency among them about their intentions. Assessing these skills would assist them in determining whether they were on track in meeting their mission to prepare low-income students to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

What Comes First

What comes first: conducting the assessment, or establishing the purpose of measuring student actions, attributes, and abilities?

Too often, educators collect (or are directed to collect) data. Then, only after the numbers are crunched, the bar graphs are generated, and the reports are distributed, do they begin to consider what they might do with the results of all that effort and information.

This is true both for conventional academic achievement data as well as for the more recent wave of social and emotional learning (SEL) data.

Perhaps there is some notion of purpose and motivation.

Sometimes a vague or generic purpose has been floated before the assessment goes into effect. While that is better than none at all, it is still not the rigorous and disciplined approach that will generate the best results.

Sequencing is Key

So what can educators and administrators do differently?

They can flip this sequence and put purpose first. This allows them to deliberately, inclusively, meticulously determine and share what the purpose is, and then—only then—go out to collect the information.

If you’re looking for more resources, a recent guide from the RAND Corporation and CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), entitled Choosing and Using SEL Competency Assessments: What Schools and Districts Need to Know, offers guidance and strategies for appropriate and wise use of SEL assessments.

The guide has been published as a companion to two newly established online resources, a new SEL Assessment Guide from CASEL’s Assessment Work group which “offers guidance to educators on how to select and use assessments of students’ SEL competencies,” and the new “RAND Assessment Finder” that “lists more than 200 assessments of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and higher-order cognitive competencies.” We should note that ACT’s still relatively new SEL assessment system, ACT® Tessera™, is included in both these new resource compendia.

There may be a natural tendency among many to leap to the section of this guide dedicated to on SEL assessment selection. But rightfully, the guide asks educator to pause and first carefully frame their purpose and plan the role of assessment. The discussion of purpose plays out over three of the guide’s seven steps:

  • Step 1: Frame the overall SEL effort
  • Step 2: Plan the role of Assessment
  • Step 7: Use Data

The key messages here are simple but profound—and very applicable to the use of ACT Tessera or almost any other type of SEL assessment system.

1. Inclusively develop a “Theory of Change” or theory of action.

There are a myriad of ways of doing so. Some can be more formal and technical than others, but at root, the work entails pulling together a representative cross section of the organization, evaluating the research, and determining what particular outcomes are sought and evidence-based actions will be employed toward achieving those outcomes.

Measurement matters only after very careful definition of the aspirations and intentions of whatever it is we are measuring.

2. Clarify formative or summative assessment purpose.

Some assessments are intended to provide ongoing information during the course of the intervention/improvement effort so as to strengthen its likelihood for success. Other assessments are used to evaluate whether or not the effort was a success.

Be sure you know which your assessment project entails because it has many implications for which assessment system you choose and how you administer it.

3. Provide educators careful guidance for using SEL assessment reports and data to effectively support student growth.

Teachers and counselors are unlikely, busy as they are, to prepare their own strategies for the use of SEL assessment reports and information. This guide advises program leaders to collaborate with teachers and counselors to determine the best approaches to data use, including SEL lesson planning, enlisting and empowering student voice, promoting greater equity in student learning, and comparing the effectiveness of multiple strategies.

Left out of this discussion is how students might use their own individual data from SEL measurement to reflect on their own strengths and opportunities to improve and then monitor their own progress.

ACT is pleased to be represented in this new RAND compendium, and is delighted to be participating in the fast-growing national conversation about the value and use of Social and Emotional Learning. Both are emblematic of ACT transforming into more than a measurement company.

For SEL assessment to be more than measurement, users must be proactive and vigorous in establishing and communicating the “why.” After all, as Simon Sinek says in his famous TED talk, starting with the why is how great leadership inspires meaningful action.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.