We all know that it’s what gets measured that gets attention and focus. Right now, there is no widespread, practical way for all schools to assess children’s social-emotional skills and character development (SECD).
Or is there?
If you look at report cards, you’ll find on “the other side” a set of comments about children’s behavior, character, preparation, motivation, and more. Teacher comments have long been provided alongside academic grades to recognize the essential role of many abilities and competencies in academic performance and future potential—and we know that academic ability and potential are not always directly related. We have all served on committees with colleagues who are extremely smart, but not productive members of the team; indeed, their actions often impede the collective work.
So, in the world into which our students will enter as adults, there can be no either-or of academic or social-emotional and character competencies. Students require both-and. Feedback about students in schools must incorporate both aspects, systematically and carefully.
Why Current Comment Systems Need Improvement
In The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development, JJ Ferrito, Dominic Moceri and I analyzed report card comments and their ubiquitous drop-down menus and found many flaws in the current system. The items are often non-specific or assess multiple areas; the choices are constrained; the way they are integrated into data systems is such that there is almost never any feedback provided on student trends; and they rarely measure what schools believe to be most important.
The upshot is that current methods are far from systematic. We can, should, and must do a lot better in assessing and reporting on SECD, and the technology exists for this to happen. But any change in educational practice—even the most obvious and necessary—asks many individuals to look at what they are doing and do things differently. This can’t be considered without well-thought-out justification.
In that light, reflect on the following driving forces for making changes in current report cards:
- Pedagogical requirements of standards-based academics across nations already require social-emotional and character competencies
- Teachers already allocate time to assigning report card comments, but almost never receive summary feedback based on them
- Comment sections are often the only formal rating made of student behavior
- Finances are already allocated for the production and distribution of report cards three or four times per year
- Parents and students could receive feedback on student progress toward demonstrating specific skills shown in research and practice to influence academic achievement as well as a number of positive and negative behaviors
- Student progress toward skill and/or character development (deemed most meaningful by your school) can be tracked on an individual, school, and district level
- Ratings of SEL skills and character traits can be used as early indicators of students at risk or who may be able to serve as positive role models and resources for their peers
- SEL and character ratings present a natural opportunity to emphasize positive behaviors (there’s is a big difference between “not bullying” and being an asset to the classroom and peers)
These will become important talking points with colleagues as you consider moving in this direction.
Framing Essential Conversations With Parents and Students
The gifts of individual students include their academic abilities, personality, character, and skills of relating and interacting. We can use SECD in our report cards to frame essential, multi-year conversations between students and teachers, teachers and parents, and parents and students.
Some of the most important of these conversations (particularly for parents and guardians who are not as closely attuned to schools’ academic rigors) revolve around “the other side of the report card.” Our current comment systems too rarely address the behaviors most worth talking about, even those best aligned with our ultimate goal of educating the future citizens of our society.
A Guide to Feasibly Integrating SECD Into Report Cards
Schools arrive at a decision to integrate SEL and/or character into their report cards in 1 of 2 ways, generally:
Option 1: Schools make a commitment to build students’ social-emotional competencies and/or character and now wish to have a formal, explicit, systematic way of assessing progress.
Option 2: Schools realize the importance of SEL and/or character for their broader purposes of developing the whole student, fostering academic achievement, promoting positive behavior, and creating a positive culture and climate for learning.
Either way, the best process is to create assessments that are aligned with your school and district priorities—and what is most valuable is the process of dialogue, conversation, and selection of SECD priorities and focus. The resulting system is tailored to your school and truly “owned” by the school community. No specialized school or outside personnel are needed to score or interpret these assessments, which reduce cost and increase efficient use of in-school expertise.
The Other Side of the Report Card provides developmental guidance and examples at all grade levels for how to design and implement a report card comment system aligned with your own SEL and/or character goals, including:
- Guided exercises for analyzing existing report cards
- Samples and suggested report card designs
- Tips on improving communication with parents
- Case studies highlighting common challenges
- Testimonials from teachers and students
We know that our students’ social-emotional and character development is essential for their success in school and life. Since it matters so much, we should give serious thought to assessing it in ways that are much better aligned with theory, research, and practical utility than are our current report card comment systems.