My View: What standardized testing can learn from baseball

By 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 theCenter 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

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