More than content tests: State to offer some schools a student well-being assessment next year

Photo of Cayla Bamberger

Connecticut will soon offer statewide assessments to evaluate student well-being.

The Connecticut State Department of Education introduced plans to give school districts social-emotional learning (SEL) assessments starting this fall. Officials said the tests will provide school staff with data to understand students’ social, emotional and behavioral skills to better offer instruction going forward.

The initiative comes as students, many of whom have been out of classrooms for a year, face increasing isolation and trauma related to ongoing public health, economic and racial crises.

“Reinforcing a strong statewide system of supports around SEL and mental health is how we will most effectively address the unprecedented level of trauma, anxiety and uncertainty that both students and school staff have experienced over the past year,” Acting Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said in a statement.

The education department recently announced a partnership with Aperture Education to provide K-12 schools with a system of SEL assessments called the DESSA. The evaluations, which predate the pandemic, are designed to help educators assess skills like managing emotions, solving problems and getting along with others, and can help determine the need for intervention and support. The DESSA focuses on strengths, not discipline, and can be used to document student progress and outcomes, its creators said.

“By providing schools with reliable, actionable SEL data, we can help them identify the best ways to support every students’ well-being which will help them set students up for success both in school and in life,” Jessica Adamson, the CEO of Aperture Education, said in a statement.

Most students start with the DESSA-mini, which gauges overall social-emotional competence. The short screener consists of eight questions that educators assessing a child can complete within one minute, according to Aperture, and is used to make broad inferences about a group of students or identify potentially at-risk children.

Aperture expects 16 percent of students to be identified as needing instruction, based on data from a nationally representative student sample, and suggests these children be further evaluated.

The follow-up DESSA assessment takes about five to eight minutes to complete and gives school staff a more detailed picture of each student, according to Aperture. The test covers self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness.

The state will make DESSA available to 100 districts in two cohorts next school year and nearly 200 districts the following school year. Access to the assessments will be free for all participating districts, removing one oft-cited barrier to more robust social-emotional instruction.

Experts say SEL assessments can be one piece of the puzzle to get students the support and life-skills education they need.

Sandra Chafouleas, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, said most schools she’s researched do academic and health screenings, such as for lice.

“But when we looked at what people were doing in the social-emotional-behavioral space, only about a third of districts (nationally) said they were engaging in that kind of practice,” she said.

But screening, Chafouleas added, is just the first step.

“We need to be thinking: What are the supports in place not only to administer (assessments), but to use the data appropriately to make good, proactive decisions?” she said. “If we identify a problem, are we equipped to pivot and deliver the services?”

The state’s partnership with Aperture includes DESSA training, technical assistance, access to reporting features and growth strategies and interventions.

Jonathan Schweig, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, which compiles and reviews social, emotional and academic assessments, said evaluations like DESSA tend to be reliable, in that student scores tend to correlate with other measurements of behavior and well-being. But he suggested the system is limited in the way it’s administered.

“Broadly speaking, any measure that relies on this kind of observer is subject to the possibility of rater effects distorting scores,” said Schweig.

Still, having an outside observer helps minimize bias in self-reporting and increases access to kids who might be pre-literate or otherwise unable to take a test, he said.

DESSA is being piloted in Naugatuck, Windham and Middletown, where school administrators reported the system was teacher-friendly, detailed at the individual, classroom and school levels, and having useful tools like visuals, graphs and reports.

The initiative is just one component in a larger trend toward shaping schools to better serve the whole child, supporters said.

“There was a lot of interest in how we measure SEL in schools (before school closures),” said Schweig, “and I do think that the pandemic created an increased amount of urgency.”