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There are two ways to go wrong in scoring student essays. One is to have them graded by computers. The other is to have them graded by the low-wage slackers hired by testing corporations.
There is only one way to go right in scoring student essays. That is to have them read by teachers in the building or district where the student is enrolled.
Massachusetts is pondering turning over the grading of student essays to computers. Les Perelman, a retired professor of writing at MIT, has demonstrated how dumb the computers are when it comes to understanding what students have written. The computers like long sentences; big words; and long essays. But the computers have a serious defect: They can’t tell truth from falsehood. He told a New York Times writer, Michael Winerip, that a computer would not care if a student wrote that the War of 1812 began in 1945. Computers are not fact-checkers. That is why they can score thousands of essays in less than a minute. If you happen to think that knowledge matters, don’t have essays scored by computers.
If you think that it is better to ask Pearson or ETS or any of the other testing companies to have essays graded by humans, think again. Read Todd Farley’s book “Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry,” where he describes himself as a scorer who was in it for the hourly wage, surrounded by others with little or no interest in the quality of writing or the fate of students. In recent years, we have heard of ads placed on Craigslist, seeking essay readers at $11 an hour, no experience needed. Read the last paragraph of Farley’s book to know why mass-grading of student writing doesn’t work, why parents should fight it with every fibre of their being.
Who should read and assess student work? Teachers who work in the building or the district. At least then one can be certain that teachers are doing the grading, not unemployed and inexperienced college graduates who are expected to read and grade 100 essays an hour or more.