Measuring Social Emotional Skills in Schools: Return of the MOOSES

Throughout the U. S., there is huge interest in improving students’ social emotional skills and related behaviors. This is indeed important as a means of building tomorrow’s society. However, measuring SEL skills is terribly difficult. Not that measuring reading, math, or science learning is easy, but there are at least accepted measures in those areas. In SEL, almost anything goes, and measures cover an enormous range. Some measures might be fine for theoretical research and some would be all right if they were given independently of the teachers who administered the treatment, but SEL measures are inherently squishy.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog on measurement of social emotional skills. In it, I argued that social emotional skills should be measured in pragmatic school research as objectively as possible, especially to avoid measures that merely reflect having students in experimental groups repeating back attitudes or terminology they learned in the program. I expressed the ideal for social emotional measurement in school experiments as MOOSES: Measurable, Observable, Objective, Social Emotional Skills.

Since that time, our group at Johns Hopkins University has received a generous grant from the Gates Foundation to add research on social emotional skills and attendance to our Evidence for ESSA website. This has enabled our group to dig a lot deeper into measures for social emotional learning. In particular, JHU graduate student Sooyeon Byun created a typology of SEL measures arrayed from least to most MOOSE-like. This is as follows.

  1. Cognitive Skills or Low-Level SEL Skills.

Examples include executive functioning tasks such as pencil tapping, the Stroop test, and other measures of cognitive regulation, as well as recognition of emotions. These skills may be of importance as part of theories of action leading to social emotional skills of importance to schools, but they are not goals of obvious importance to educators in themselves.

  1. Attitudes toward SEL (non-behavioral).

These include agreement with statements such as “bullying is wrong,” and statements about why other students engage in certain behaviors (e.g., “He spilled the milk because he was mean.”).

  1. Intention for SEL behaviors (quasi-behavioral).

Scenario-based measures (e.g., what would you do in this situation?).

  1. SEL behaviors based on self-report (semi-behavioral).

Reports of actual behaviors of self, or observations of others, often with frequencies (e.g., “How often have you seen bullying in this school during this school year?”) or “How often do you feel anxious or afraid in class in this school?”)

This category was divided according to who is reporting:

4a. Interested party (e.g., report by teachers or parents who implemented the program and may have reason to want to give a positive report)

4b. Disinterested party (e.g., report by students or by teachers or parents who did not administer the treatment)

  1. MOOSES (Measurable, Observable, Objective Social Emotional Skills)
  • Behaviors observed by independent observers, either researchers, ideally unaware of treatment assignment, or by school officials reporting on behaviors as they always would, not as part of a study (e.g., regular reports of office referrals for various infractions, suspensions, or expulsions).
  • Standardized tests
  • Other school records

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Uses for MOOSES

All other things being equal, school researchers and educators should want to know about measures as high as possible on the MOOSES scale. However, all things are never equal, and in practice, some measures lower on the MOOSES scale may be all that exists or ever could exist. For example, it is unlikely that school officials or independent observers could determine students’ anxiety or fear, so self-report (level 4b) may be essential. MOOSES measures (level 5) may be objectively reported by school officials, but limiting attention to such measures may limit SEL measurement to readily observable behaviors, such as aggression, truancy, and other behaviors of importance to school management, and not on difficult-to-observe behaviors such as bullying.

Still, we expect to find in our ongoing review of the SEL literature that there will be enough research on outcomes measured at level 3 or above to enable us to downplay levels 1 and 2 for school audiences, and in many cases to downplay reports by interested parties in level 4a, where teachers or parents who implement a program then rate the behavior of the children they served.

Social emotional learning is important, and we need measures that reflect their importance, minimizing potential bias and staying as close as possible to independent, meaningful measures of behaviors that are of the greatest importance to educators. In our research team, we have very productive arguments about these measurement issues in the course of reviewing individual articles. I placed a cardboard cutout of a “principal” called “Norm” in our conference room. Whenever things get too theoretical, we consult “Norm” for his advice. For example, “Norm” is not too interested in pencil tapping and Stroop tests, but he sure cares a lot about bullying, aggression, and truancy. Of course, as part of our review we will be discussing our issues and initial decisions with real principals and educators, as well as other experts on SEL.

The growing number of studies of SEL in recent years enables reviewers to set higher standards than would have been feasible even just a few years ago. We still have to maintain a balance in which we can be as rigorous as possible but not end up with too few studies to review.  We can all aspire to be MOOSES, but that is not practical for some measures. Instead, it is useful to have a model of the ideal and what approaches the ideal, so we can make sense of the studies that exist today, with all due recognition of when we are accepting measures that are nearly MOOSES but not quite the real Bullwinkle

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Keep Up the Good Work (To Keep Up the Good Outcomes)

I just read an outstanding study that contains a hard but crucially important lesson. The study, by Woodbridge et al. (2014), evaluated a behavior management program for students with behavior problems. The program, First Step to Success, has been successfully evaluated many times. In the Woodbridge et al. study, 200 children in grades 1 to 3 with serious behavior problems were randomly assigned to experimental or control groups. On behavior and achievement measures, students in the experimental group scored much higher, with effect sizes of +0.44 to +0.87. Very impressive.

The researchers came back a year later to see if the outcomes were still there. Despite the substantial impacts seen at posttest, none of three prosocial/adaptive behavior measures, only one of three problem/maladaptive behaviors, and none of four academic achievement measures showed positive outcomes.

These findings were distressing to the researchers, but they contain a message. In this study, students passed from teachers who had been trained in the First Step method to teachers who had not. The treatment is well-established and inexpensive. Why should it ever be seen as a one-year intervention with a follow-up? Instead, imagine that all teachers in the school learned the program and all continued to implement it for many years. In this circumstance, it would be highly likely that the first-year positive impacts would be sustained and most likely improved over time.

Follow-up assessments are always interesting, and for interventions that are very expensive it may be crucial to demonstrate lasting impacts. But so often in education effective treatments can be maintained for many years, creating more effective school-wide environments and lasting impacts over time. Much as we might like to have one-shot treatments with long-lasting impacts, this does not correspond to the nature of children. The personal, family, or community problems that led children to have problems at a given point in time are likely to lead to problems in the future, too. But the solution is clear. Keep up the good work to keep up the good outcomes!