Student Well-Being

Can Social-Emotional Learning Be Measured? Contest Seeks Ideas

By Evie Blad — March 29, 2017 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As enthusiasm about social-emotional learning spreads, calls to develop better measures of students’ growth in these competencies also grow louder.

How can schools track their progress in nurturing student skills in areas like responsible decision-making and self-management without an evidence-based way to measure it? And how can states consider using the results for accountability purposes if those measures are not considered reliable and consistent?

A new contest seeks proposals for measuring these so-called non-cognitive skills in students, and it offers up a $5,000 prize. The design challenge is organized by a group of educators and researchers assembled by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, to study measurement issues.

At this point, most measurements of social-emotional learning rely on surveys students take to assess their own strengths or teacher ratings of their students. While some groups say they’ve found valid, reliable ways to use surveys for measurement, some prominent researchers have argued they are not sophisticated enough to be used for purposes like high-stakes school accountability or even program review. More on that at the end of this post.

Rather than surveys, the contest “is seeking proposals for assessments that measure social and emotional learning (SEL) based on student performance on a challenging task or in response to a particular situation,” a press release says.

An example of a performance task is the famous “marshmallow test” used to measure self control. Researchers have suggested using video game simulations, classroom exercises, and role-playing games to explore how children respond to certain challenges and situations as a way of measuring their social-emotional learning progress.

“The goal of the design challenge is to encourage the development of social-emotional assessments that support effective instruction and positive student development,” says the press release. “It is part of a larger effort organized by CASEL to identify the most promising SEL assessments, in response to growing demand from schools, districts, and states for such tools.”

The contest has an April 20 deadline. Learn more about how to enter at this link.

Criticisms of survey-based measures of social-emotional learning

So what’s wrong with student surveys? Such self-report tools are prone to a host of biases, some researchers have said.

For example, you might think you’re a great basketball player if you’ve only ever competed against an unathletic person with no hand-eye coordination like me. But a person whose skills on the court are just as good as yours might think she’s terrible at the sport if her only opponents are NBA players. Similarly, students may use different comparison points when determining if they have self control and responsible decision-making skills, researchers say.

And they worry that, in evaluating their students’ strengths and weaknesses, teachers aren’t always objective and consistent. A child who appears to have great self-management skills because she is quiet and non-disruptive may just be really shy, for example.

You can read more about these criticisms in a story I wrote about the challenges of social-emotional learning measurement.

Related reading on social-emotional learning:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.