Experts: Keep Social and Emotional Learning Out of the Testing ‘Quagmire’

testing gritThe Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in December to replace No Child Left Behind, requires states to use at least one “non-academic” factor to help measure school progress. For the National Education Association and other advocates of a broader vision of student success, this key provision guarantees that schools start addressing the needs of the whole child so that all students are healthy, engaged, safe, and supported. But can you, and should you, measure the whole child with yet another test?

According to a recent New York Times story, some districts that are developing students’ social and emotional learning skills (SEL) are going to do exactly that.

Such a move, according to many SEL advocates, only jeopardizes the extremely important goal of integrating valuable skills such as perseverance, empathy, self-control, and relationship-building into our schools.

“ESSA’s focus on non-academic factors is a positive development and an encouraging opportunity to strengthen the critical role SEL plays in student success,” explains Libby Nealis of NEA Healthy Futures and a longtime advocate of school mental health programs and student support services. “But we’re just emerging from the high-stakes culture. The last thing we want to do is find something new to test, which is completely antithetical to developing the whole child and only undermines the goal of SEL – developing relationship and responsible decision-making skills – in the first place.”

Tom Roderick, executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, believes testing will only “dumb down” social and emotional learning.

“Students and teachers are overburdened with tests already,” Roderick says. “Instead of testing, we should identify best practices in SEL from the growing body of research in the field, and give teachers the support they need to carry out those best practices with fidelity.”

Although the New York Times story has elevated the issue, the controversy over SEL and testing began to simmer in June 2015 when the National Assessment Governing Board announced that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” would begin collecting data on non-cognitive skills such as motivation and self-awareness in 2017. A few months earlier, Angela Lee Duckworth, the psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is widely credited with popularizing the concept of “grit,” became alarmed at how the zeal for tests and accountability was infiltrating the emergent field of social and emotional learning.

“Given the intense visibility and enthusiasm around growth mindset, grit, and other personal skills, it is important for school leaders and policymakers to realize that while there is great benefit to studying and assessing these attributes, the measures should not, currently, be used for broader accountability purposes,” said Duckworth. “There really is no perfect measure for any aspect of personal skills.”


Unfortunately, “grit” has become a catch-all buzzword for SEL. While there is nothing wrong with helping students become more resilient, the media has lavished an unwarranted level of attention on Duckworth and her championing of the idea. According to many educators, focusing on whether students has the tenacity or determination to succeed is just another way of putting the burden squarely on their shoulders while continuing to ignore the effects of poverty and inadequate resources on achievement.

As for the suggestion that we start testing grit? Indefensible, says José Vilson, a math teacher in New York City. Writing in the New York Times, Vilson wondered how such an idea would be administered fairly or effectively.

What instruments will be used for testing feelings? If it’s on a point scale, will we know the evaluators and how they were trained? Will we account for cultural differences and natural temperament? Do we have standards for behavior and, if so, will we have transparency on who developed the standards? Are evaluations of children’s behavior good enough to tap into the “why”? Will there be after-school grit tutoring programs and would there be a wave of empathy coaches swarming schools?

In short, said Vilson, it sounds like we would all be stuck in the overtesting “quagmire.”

Of course, there is so much more to social and emotional learning than resilience. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning defines SEL  as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Research has consistently shown that children with strong SEL skills are more likely to excel in school, both socially and academically, and,   according to a 2013 survey, 95 percent of educators believe these skills are teachable and will benefit students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

While social and emotional awareness should be infused into every individual classroom, success also requires adequate staffing of specialized instructional support personnel. These include school counselors, social workers, mental health workers, and nurses – all critical players in developing and promoting healthy social and emotional skills in students.

And while assessing SEL programs is important, adds Libby Nealis, the effort requires requires a comprehensive school-wide approach that involves much more than a teacher in a single classroom, a student and a test.

“More attention needs to be paid to the needs assessments that the Every Student Succeeds Act calls upon states and districts to conduct,” Nealis says. “By doing so, we can better determine where there are population vulnerabilities and/or gaps in services that can undermine a student’s learning and development.”