How to Select the Best SEL Assessment for Your School or District

A quality social and emotional learning (SEL) assessment is an important part of any SEL program and can help you drive meaningful change and evaluate outcomes in your school, district, or program. SEL data can help you increase instruction time, reduce behavior infractions, and improve academic outcomes for your students.

But what factors should be considered when selecting an SEL assessment? What’s the difference between SEL assessments and less formal SEL surveys? Does the research behind an SEL assessment matter?

The first thing to keep in mind is that not all SEL assessments are created equal. When selecting an SEL measurement tool, it is important to know the difference between evidence-based, validated assessments and less formal SEL surveys. Here are six questions to ask yourself to find out if your SEL assessment measures up to the research standards needed to make informed decisions and maximize student outcomes.

1. Is the tool research-based, reliable, and valid?

Many SEL surveys claim to be “research-based” but do not meet rigorous standards. To ensure the accuracy of the data you collect, the SEL assessment should be standardized and norm-referenced, ideally through a national, well-diverse sample of students. It must also have high reliability and strong assessment validity.

2. Does the tool support your SEL standards?

In an academic setting, you wouldn’t utilize an assessment that only measures factual recall if your objective is to teach analytical skills. The same is true for SEL assessments: To measure and tailor instruction to specific social-emotional competencies, you need a tool that is research-based and aligned to SEL standards. Otherwise, it is difficult to ensure the data you’re collecting is valid and supports your SEL program goals.

3. Does the tool accurately identify student needs and help guide instruction?

One of the most important reasons to collect SEL data is to identify individual strengths and areas where improvement is needed. The quality of the measurement tool is critical — the data must be accurate to ensure you’re focusing on the correct skills and maximizing instructional impacts.

4. Are you able to document progress and support RtI?

Less formal SEL surveys may be limited in their ability to document progress as students learn social and emotional skills throughout the year. Applying a Response to Intervention (RtI) framework enables you to collect SEL data throughout the year and use this information to modify teaching strategies, redirect teaching focus, and help students achieve higher rates of success.

5. Can the tool help with accountability and program effectiveness?

While SEL assessments shouldn’t be used for high-stakes evaluation, the SEL framework can be used to hold schools accountable for having systems in place to measure critical SEL skills. Use that information to guide and improve instruction and demonstrate progress toward ensuring all students attain social and emotional competence. Research-based SEL assessments support these systems by providing information you can trust is valid and accurate.

6. Are you able to measure SEL program effectiveness?

A quality, research-based SEL assessment can help you know if your SEL intervention is working. Ideally, the assessment should be administered at the beginning and end of the program and include robust reporting to make it easy to run reports on an individual student or an entire class, school, or district. The data can help educators determine if their program is moving the needle toward building the social-emotional skills students need to be successful. The data can also be used to inform decisions about program quality improvement, such as professional development opportunities for staff.

Before selecting an SEL measurement tool, know the difference between evidence-based, validated SEL assessments and less formal SEL surveys. To achieve the best results, schools need to select a well-researched, evidence-based assessment that aligns to SEL best practices and the goals of SEL instruction.

The DESSA is a nationally recognized and award-winning assessment that meets rigorous research standards. The DESSA is standardized and norm-referenced, with a standardization sample of n=2494. It exceeds the recommended standard for rater reliability and assessment validity, is grounded in resilience theory, and aligns with CASEL’s five core SEL competencies.

Additionally, the DESSA–mini can be used by schools and districts to quickly and accurately screen students’ social-emotional competence and conduct progress monitoring throughout the year. The DESSA, designed for students in grades K–8, and the DESSA–High School Edition (, designed for students in grades 9–12, meet the same rigorous research standards.

Looking for an SEL assessment to complement your SEL program? Contact our SEL advisors to learn more about the comprehensive research behind the entire suite of DESSA assessments and how these measurement tools can support your SEL program.