Got a Bad Grade? Bring it up with the Computer

Carrie Schmelkin : Gossip from the Hallways
Carrie Schmelkin
Web Editor, TMC

Got a Bad Grade? Bring it up with the Computer

You’ve certainly heard of the lazy student. You know that kid who pays his pal to write half his English essay, lifts his older sister’s college essay because, hey, she went to a different school, or types a bunch of key phrases into Google about “Romeo and Juliet” and comes up with a killer thesis statement? But the lazy teacher? Perhaps this is a new concept to you (unless you are a teacher and can think of that one less than stellar colleague).

While computers have long graded tests (think multiple-choice standardized tests), the technology is now making a run for teachers’ jobs as some schools are beginning to enlist the help of computers to grade essays; and some experts are contending that the computer can do just as good a job as humans, maybe even better. But don’t fear just yet my teacher friends!

A recent study performed at the University of Akron sent more than 16,000 essays from both middle school and high school tests through automated systems developed by nine companies. The essays, from six different states, had originally been graded by humans. The results? Computer scoring produced “virtually identical levels of accuracy with the software in some cases proving to be more reliable,” according to a University of Akron news release.

"In terms of consistency, the automated readers might have done a little better even," The New York Times Education Columnist Michael Winerip said in a recent article.

So what kind of red pen does the computer use when grading essays? According to the survey, the computer combs through the essay to search for sentence structure, word usage, subject-verb agreement and syntax. Where the computer lacks, however, is in comprehension and determining whether a sentence is factually accurate or not. I mean does the computer really know that “Jane Eyre” wasn’t actually a book about a high school cheerleader who went to great lengths to date the captain of the football team? And when it comes to creative writing such as rhetoric or poetry, perhaps the computer needs to go back to the basics as the research showed that the computer slacked in these areas.

But what the computer lacks in comprehension and prose it makes up for in efficiency as automated readers can grade 16,000 essays in about 20 seconds, as compared to the average teacher who might spend an entire weekend grading 150 essays.

There are so many ways though that automated grading can go wrong, beyond the obvious limitations pointed out in the above. Most importantly, it hampers the students/teacher interaction which is most often fostered when a child writes an out-of-this-world essay or when a child is struggling and needs a little extra TLC. By reading each student’s easy, teachers learn about their students’ strengths and weaknesses and also get to sit by and watch the beauty of a student discovering his voice unfold.

If you deny teachers the ability to see their students grow, you will lose one of the very essences that make education so special. Some of my most favorite moments in high school and college were going over papers with my teachers and professors, arguing over themes, nuances and plot development.

There is certainly a place for automated graders, particularly when it comes to the multiple choice portions of standardized tests, but even multiple choice tests in the classroom should get the eye of a teacher. I would imagine there is no greater gift than a teacher seeing his student improve leaps and bounds and a student feeling as though his teacher really has a vested interest in him.

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