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Computer-Scored Essays

Teachers recognize the value of essay compositions as vital tools for learning, self-expression, and assessment. The essay remains a staple of college and post-graduate applications, as well as job applications. In terms of formulating coherent explanation, analysis, or argument, the essay best provides that means. Even a well-constructed objective exam cannot match the essay in assessing the degree to which teaching objectives have been mastered.

“Essays are considered by many researchers as the most useful tool to assess learning outcomes, implying the ability to recall, organize and integrate ideas, the ability to express oneself in writing and the ability to supply merely than identify interpretation and application of data. It is in the measurement of such outcomes, corresponding to the evaluation and synthesis levels of the Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy that the essay questions serve their most useful purpose.” (Valenti, Nitko and Cucchiarelli 2003)

However, essays are rather subjective vehicles of expression. Even the best attempts to develop objective evaluation criteria with analytical rubrics and check-lists fall short of unbiased objectivity. Yet, this shortcoming has not eliminated the cherished role of the essay in the British and American educational establishments.

There’s just one problem. Essays just take too much time to read, respond to, and evaluate. A conscientious teacher may realistically spend an hour per student essay if that teacher responds to multiple student drafts in the context of the writing process evaluates the final published essay.

Of course, teachers can spend less time, if they use simplistic holistic rubrics or buy-in to the convenient notion that making comments on a student’s essay somehow disenfranchises the autonomy of the writer. However, most teachers recognize that interactive dialogue between student and teacher on the student’s essay is unavoidably essential. And it does take time.

Enter the age of computers. Word processing, spell check, grammar check, word count, reading level, data bases, etc. Is there a savior?

Computer-scoring of student writing is being actively marketed to K-12 schools and universities. Multinational corporations, such as Educational Testing Services (ETS), claim that current technology is able not only to provide objective assessment, but is now also able to give accurate and useful feedback to the student writer. Criterion, a machine-reading service marketed by ETS, has become widely popular in both American K-12 schools and universities. Other similar automatic grading programs are open for business.

Both of the new assessment consortia that have been delegated the tasks of developing national assessments for the Common Core State Standards (now adopted by 43 states) have indicated that they are using machine-scored essay software. “Automated assessment systems would provide consistency in essay scoring, while enormous cost and time savings could occur if the AES system is shown to grade essays within the range of those awarded by human assessors,” suggest the aforementioned researchers.

But, what to teachers say about computer-scored essays?

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) summarizes its position on machine-scored writing:

We oppose the use of machine-scored writing in the assessment of writing.  Automated assessment programs do not respond as human readers.  While they may promise consistency, they distort the very nature of writing as a complex and context-rich interaction between people.  They simplify writing in ways that can mislead writers to focus more on structure and grammar than on what they are saying by using a given structure and style.

“Writing Assessment: A Position Statement.” NCTE.org. Nov 2006

The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) summarizes its position on machine-scored writing:

“We oppose the use of machine-scored writing in the assessment of writing.” Automated assessment programs do not respond as human readers. While they may promise consistency, they distort the very nature of writing as a complex and context-rich interaction between people. They simplify writing in ways that can mislead writers to focus more on structure and grammar than on what they are saying by using a given structure and style… We believe ourselves that machine-scoring fundamentally alters the social and rhetorical nature of writing—that writing to a machine is not writing at all.”

The CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments

But, is there a middle ground? Can teachers use technology to save time and doing a more thorough job of responding to student essays? Can teachers maintain autonomy in the evaluation process and exercise their own judgment about which comments need to be made, which grammatical errors need to be marked, and which grade needs to be assigned?

Perhaps so. There can be a balance between technological efficiency and teacher judgment. Using the computer to grade paper and online essays can achieve both purposes. For those teachers interested in saving time and doing a more thorough job of essay response and grading, check out the The Pennington Manual of StyleThis style manual serves as a wonderful writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips from the author’s comprehensive essay writing curriculum:  Teaching Essay Strategies. The style manual (included in the Common Core aligned Teaching Essay Strategies, also includes a download of the 438 writing, grammar, mechanics, and spelling comments teachers use most often in essay response and grading. Placed in the Autocorrects function of Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013 (XP, Vista,  Windows 7, 8, and 10), teachers can access each comment with a simple mouse click to insert into online student essays or print/e-mail for paper submissions. Each comment identifies the error or writing issue, defines terms, and gives examples so that student writers are empowered to correct/revise on their own. This approach to essay comments produces significantly more accountability and transfer to subsequent writing.TESThe Pennington Manual of Style

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