To the Editor:
While I applaud the increase in attention to students’ social and emotional skills, the recent urgency to develop ways to measure such proficiencies in the classroom gives me pause (“‘Testing for Joy and Grit’? I Don’t Think So”). The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, the center where I work, studies the implementation of school-based emotional health and behavioral programs. We are concerned about the push to measure such skills in children rather than assessing the general climate of the school.
There are many valid arguments against testing students’ individual skills, including a lack of agreement on which skills matter most. But the larger issue is that focusing on students’ skills shifts the emphasis from deficiencies in the students’ environment to deficiencies in the student.
In short, efforts should focus on building positive school environments. The U.S. Department of Education describes a positive school climate as one that promotes a supportive academic, disciplinary, and physical environment and builds respectful and trusting relationships within the school community. Measuring school climate is challenging, but can identify needs that may otherwise go unnoticed and can engage community partners in enhancing student supports.
Tools that have demonstrated results are available. In Alaska, the voluntary School Climate and Connectedness Survey collects information about student, staff, and family experiences in schools, and informs planning goals and allocation of resources. Since the survey began in 2006, 90 percent of the school districts have participated in it. The decisions made as a result of those surveys reflect a strong relationship between positive school climate and the percentage of students meeting state standards for learning.
While the latest research affirms that building social and emotional skills in children leads to better academic and employment outcomes, measuring these skills on the individual level misses the point. Assessing school climate, including contextual factors that influence student development and learning, offers a better way to understand and respond to the needs of all students.
Olga Acosta Price
Center for Health and Health Care in Schools
Milken Institute School of Public Health
George Washington University
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Measure School Climate, Not Social-Emotional Skills