My View: What standardized testing can learn from baseball
June 7th, 2012
06:12 AM ET

My View: What standardized testing can learn from baseball

Courtesy Wendi PillarsBy Wendi Pillars, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Wendi Pillars is a teacher with National Board Certification in English-language learning and a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teacher Leaders Network. She has 15 years of teaching experience, overseas and stateside, and has been coaching Little League Baseball for three years.

It's that time of year again: Baseball season - and standardized testing season. As I donned my dangly earrings etched with the word "believe" on our first mathematics testing day, my heart raced at the thought of the day's outcomes. You see, wearing the earrings on test days reminds my nervous self that I believe my students will do their absolute best. This got me thinking about how I was inadvertently partaking in the time-honored athlete's tradition of the good luck talisman.

As a Little League Baseball coach and an elementary school teacher, I now connect standardized testing and baseball in more ways than one.

What do baseball and testing have in common?

Baseball is, simply, a time-consuming game. Players practice the same skills over and over.

Baseball relies heavily on stats, which have evolved from simple metrics to more complex ones.

Players rely on coaches to ascertain areas of improvement and how to improve.

Individual effort, support and practice at home can make tremendous differences in game-day performance.

The performance of a couple of players can make or break the entire team and the outcome of any given game. This, in turn, can affect finances and morale.

In Little League, as in the classroom, if your team is saddled with an unruly player, you can’t make trades.

So what can parents, teachers and education policymakers learn from Little League Baseball?

If you think about it, the sport seems to get quite a few things right that we can apply to testing. Here is my all-star list:

Success always boils down to the basics.
Steeped in decades-old traditions, the classic game remains, in adaptive harmony with 21st-century touches. Team skills, individual skills and focused time on task trump technology to win the game.

“Better” is relative.
Some batters can score a home run from a two-foot bunt, while others smash a line drive into the outfield only for the other team to make an amazing catch for the out.

Repetition works best when there is real-world application.
Repetitive skills are couched in opportunities for synthesis, critical thinking and problem-solving at the individual and team levels. All are guided by immediate feedback to improve players’ mental and physical games.

Not every day is every player’s perfect day.
Weather, fatigue, hunger and other external events of the day (puppy love, anyone?) can undermine the performance of any player.

Remember they’re human. And they’re nine.
Baseball players get to spit (we’re talking actual spit here), chew (gum) and drink (water and Gatorade) while enduring their public test. Not so for the little cognitively regurgitating test-takers, bellies rumbling with hunger, bladders begging for mercy after four hours.

Practice and support off the field greatly influence the performance of all players.
Player backgrounds and socioeconomic standing are invisible on the ball field. Those who practice on their own, even those deemed disadvantaged by society, can compete handily with those more privileged.

Many of the most important standards are immeasurable.
Players work to display grace in the face of victory or defeat by learning sportsmanship, respect, persistence, attitude, hard work, discipline and a love of the game. And we always, always, shake the other team's hands, knowing that there will be a better day soon enough.

Players and coaches have the best view of the field
Although basic rules and skills have not changed, the dynamics of today are quite different from when the uber-armchair-athletes once “dominated” in their sport. Anyone can be a critic, but it takes time and guts to truly grasp what goes into the daily grind.

Immediate and continuous communications, support and feedback are absolutely essential for success.
Coaches and players have the opportunity to discuss the game before, after and while it happens.

Coaches and teammates need to celebrate each success because they, more than anyone, know how far they have come.
There is inherent value in each play, whether apparently successful or not. The unschooled observer won’t understand our excitement for #14’s first connection (foul tip!) unless they know it came after a string of strikeouts.

So with every last ounce of energy, we "will" our skills and knowledge into the brains and bodies of the children whom we teach or coach, exponentially raising the stakes on our investment, without having all the control.

Results analysts could vastly expand their fan base if they remembered that teachers are human, too, with good days and bad days. Don’t take the announcer’s word for the latest scoop on the meaning of stats and results.

Talk to the players and coaches personally. With massive upheaval in “league rules” (i.e., implementation of the Common Core State Standards), we need the same optimism, support and differentiation as our players do. Take time to view us as humans in our entirety, in different game situations, under different circumstances.

And remember that a season defines success, not just a single game.

Stop by and visit. We’d love to have you experience our sport as it was meant to be: for the love of the game.

I’ll be the one with the dangly earrings.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wendi Pillars.

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Filed under: Elementary school • Teachers • Testing • Voices
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Kris

    I've thought for years now that a better system for testing would be unpredictable and impersonal. Put together a national test, build 'teams' of testers who travel to schools and administer tests on average every three years. They arrive on Friday afternoon and testing begins monday, with school faculty only responsible for role-taking and aiding the team. Do not allow access to the test to anyone so pretesting becomes impossible. Fix the testing first.
    Next, you need to fix the way we evaluate teachers and schools and dfistricts. Long term, evaluating districts and schools is the easy part, but you have to start there. Districts and schools should be evaluated by keeping track of needed remediation in that population of students who go on to college (unless we suddenly start seeing a drop in kids encouraged to attend). Teachers should be evaluated by the teachers to whom they send there students. For example, second grade teachers should be evaluating first grade teachers and evaluated by third grade teachers.
    The last place we need to reform is educational requirements. Teaching should not be an available major beyond third grade. It should be a minor which accompanies a degree in the field you wish to teach.

    June 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  2. authentic Air Jordan 11

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    June 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  3. jenniferlbarnett

    Wendi –
    What a fresh, positive look at testing! Thank you for such a beautifully written piece! Your deep understanding of the nature of coaching applies so well to many educational situations and issues. And you are spot on with plenty of references to how teachers can take a page from a coach's playbook to be successful. Thank you for sharing!

    June 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  4. Foul ball

    I appreciate your statement that "practice and support off the field greatly influence the performance of all students." Parents will spend hours helping their ball player practice whatever skills need improvement. They will come to the games and yell and cheer. They even volunteer to coach. These same parents will tell teachers that they don't expect the teacher to do their job and they resent that the teacher expects parents to do the job the teacher should be doing in the classroom. Your analogy gives teachers one more response to such parents. Thank you.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  5. Jessica Cuthbertson

    Thanks for this post, Wendi! I love your thoughts and the parallels you draw between baseball and teaching and learning. I agree that a season indeed defines success much more thoroughly than a single game. I wanted to share another piece that uses baseball to connect to education to extend the metaphor yet a little more:

    June 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  6. Lauren

    I agree that learning is a team sport, but each player ultimately learns alone. Richard Marius, a long time freshman comp teacher and scholar, compares how we traditionally learn writing and grammar to learning all of the rules of baseball before ever stepping foot on the field. Baseball, like grammar, has a lot of rules. Yet, good players learn by playing and picking up the rules as they need them. So it is with any sort of learning. We need to jump into the game and figure it out as we go. I think this is a wonderful analogy to share with students, too – to communicate my expectations for how a class might work. Thank you for your clarity and insight.

    June 11, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • wendian06

      Thanks, Lauren. Although I'm not (yet!) familiar with that piece, it sounds like an apt analogy even though formal and consistent grammar instruction has seemed to drift to the wayside. That's unfortunate since grammar has so many rules that provide the foundation of depth and solidity in so many other areas..... 🙁
      I do believe that you couldn't be more right about the necessary flexibility and willingness to jump in and learn as we go, since that seems to be the prevalent reaction to CCSS with colleagues I know!

      June 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  7. Rob K


    Awesome analogy! And, I agree we need the same optimism as baseball teams. Heck, my beloved NY Mets were predicted to be in the basement, but with a good team-wide approach at the plate and hustle and determination, they are proving very successful. A valuable lesson can be carried over to the classroom.

    Also, I completely agree with Lincoln. Quite simply, teaching IS more important than testing. In many areas we are testing incessantly.

    Great piece.

    June 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • wendian06

      Hi, Rob, thanks for linking to the NY Mets (not that other NY team!)–I imagine your students love when you make connections like that in your class, adding that CCSS depth! Plus, I'm thinking that watching your team arise from a slump can be a fantastic diversion from hours of testing frustrations...
      Glad to see you survived from what seems to be a longer than ever testing season!

      June 12, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  8. Rod P.

    Wendi –
    Excellent post! I think the analogy applies all the way up to the high school level. We'll have some interesting "testing seasons" in the future with common core standards. It will be difficult to measure the skills of Common Core in a standardized testing format. A great many skills of Common Core involve complex reading and writing skills that would prove troublesome to measure with a typical multiple choice assessment. Informal and daily classroom assessments and observations by teachers will prove to be valuable during these upcoming seasons as well.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  9. Lincoln

    Common core testing is a waste of time! Teaching is more important than testing. We are beginning to overly scrutinize the teaching process and the results testing provides. Teachers are constantly being forced to follow scripted, sterile standardized lessons that provide little opportunity for creativity. Give teachers time, supplies, and support and students will succeed. Testing over and over again is not a magic bullet! Any good teacher checks for understanding throughout each lesson, evaluating homework and classwork, and observing students as they participate in activities. Judging a teacher with a test score is an insult to the art of teaching.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Mary Ellen Kanthack

      Unfortunately, while what you say is true, it is not reality. I have decided that to even talk about the art of teaching is a thing of the past in regard to administration and public, and is shifted to a private matter between you and your students. Only you, and your colleagues can appreciate what is meant by the "art". That art has to be proven over and over again in a constructive and clear manner defined by standards. I am thankful for the National Board Certification process that brought that together for me. However, I work for an administration that does not acknowledge it as anything exceptional. Common Core at least hones down standards well enough that we don't have to spend too much time interpreting what is said and we can get to the business of teaching things that prepare students for their world..which isn't our world. (Technology is key...but it will never replace humans and anyone can run a computer.) So the demands are higher of us... As far as the testing?....The amount of time spent testing is ridiculous! Our state tests last 2-3 weeks, bench marks are 3 to 4 class periods three times a year, and with Common Core, I understand it will be longer because of the performance parts. Yes, and they are only nine years old..

      June 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
      • wendian06

        Hi, Mary Ellen, I agree that the testing demands are beyond frustrating, but you and I both know–sans external validation–that our "art" is worthy of persistent refinement. And yes, it is important that we get to the business of teaching, while reminding students that thinking skills are critical to running a computer "better". As Rod noted above, our informal and formal ongoing assessments through the year will be the most telling indicators of our students' growth. They may only be 9, but they deserve concerned and mindful teachers like yourself!

        June 12, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • wendian06

      Thanks, Lincoln–and don't forget that teaching is a whole lot more fun than testing!!

      June 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm |