Using Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Assessment in Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)

(Originally appeared in the Transforming Education blog on July 11, 2018.)

Multi-tiered systems of support, or MTSS, are based on a simple and positive premise: We should use data to teach in ways that build on student strengths and address student needs. At its best, MTSS guides educators to use assessment data to teach in the most effective way possible.

As my colleagues and I work to develop and distribute scalable and technically sound social-emotional assessments, educators often ask about the role of social-emotional (SE) assessment in MTSS.

Some have argued that SE assessment should not be used as part of MTSS because of the risk of inadvertently labelling or stigmatizing students. I believe that good SE assessment data, used properly, can guide instructional decision-making with maximum benefit and minimal risk.

When to Use SEL Assessment for MTSS

So how can SE assessment data be used properly? If used as a flashlight, SE assessment data can shine a light on student strengths and needs and to guide educators to use the very best strategies to foster academic, social, and emotional skill development. If used to affix a label, SE assessment data can cause harm through labelling, stigma, and inappropriate placement decisions.

How can educators use SE data properly in an MTSS framework? The following table describes “flashlight” and “label” practices.

10 Ways SEL Assessment Can Support MTSS

Flashlight (do this):

  1. Communicate clearly with parents and teachers what SE skills will be measured and how SE assessment data will be used.
  2. Use SE assessment data mainly as a tool to improve instruction.
  3. Allow parents to opt their children out of SE assessment if they are uncomfortable with it.
  4. Decide and clearly communicate how SE assessment data will (and won’t) be used.
  5. Use SE assessment data in combination with other information to understand student strengths and needs.
  6. Integrate SE data into regular and rigorous data review process involving guided review, reflection, and decision-making.
  7. Use assessment data to guide the use of evidence-based SE practices that build on student strengths and address student needs.
  8. Use SE assessment data aggregated at the classroom level to understand the strengths and needs of groups of students.
  9. Collect SE assessment data regularly to determine the appropriate level of social-emotional support each student needs.
  10. Use assessment results as a part of the problem-solving process to identify and analyze the problem, develop and implement a plan, and evaluate the efficacy of the plan through monitoring student progress.

9 Things to Avoid with SEL Assessment for MTSS

Label (don’t do this):

  1. Don’t communicate with parents or teachers about what and why SE assessment data are being gathered.
  2. Collect SE assessment data but don’t use it, or use it to evaluate teacher performance. Administer assessments to all without informing parents.
  3. Assess now and figure out what to use the data for later.
  4. Use a single source of SE assessment data to diagnose students.
  5. Test and leave it to individual educators to use the data as they see fit.
  6. Use SE assessment data to grade students.
  7. Focus exclusively on individual students and label them based on SE assessment findings.
  8. Use SE assessment data to track students at the beginning of the year and leave it that way all year.
  9. Use assessment results to come to firm and fixed conclusions about students character.

If SE assessment data are used as a flashlight, they can provide a strong and informed basis for making decisions about how best to teach students. In so doing, data users maximize the potential benefit and minimize risk. The alternative is to use our hunches and impressions, which, in my opinion, are poor substitutes for good data.


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