From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Bill and Mike discuss Mike’s bankruptcy:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Someday soon, two teachers of writing will be sitting and discussing the death of teaching writing, and the conversation will sound much the same.

Teaching writing came into its own in the 1970s and 1980s with great promise that the discipline of teaching composition would find its way into K-12 classrooms; this potential rested in the arms of the National Writing Project and its state affiliates across the U.S., often connected with universities.

However, we have sat silently and watched the accountability era dismantle that hope, and as a result, we have failed the teaching of writing [1].

Standards and high-stakes testing have slowly bled that promise dry, and then the addition of the writing section of the SAT kicked writing instruction while it was down. But the final nail in the coffin?

Calls for computer-based grading of writing:

Here is where leadership is needed from teachers and administrators.  Before some company comes up with a way to grade essays and boards of education become enamored with the idea, and legislators find new ways to require their use…let’s lead.  The technology is here….

We must lead the conversation by knowing and understanding how the technology can improve the educational process, which is based on the most important relationship between teacher and student. In educating our communities, it is essential to begin with the intention of improving teacher and student contact time, not replacing it.  We need to design the solution, not be given it.  First steps are opening our minds to the possibilities.

If you take the time, this is the same self-defeating fatalism that accompanies advocacy for Common Core: Let’s shoot ourselves in the foot before someone else does it!

The piece quoted above asks Will We Ever Allow Computers To Grade Students’ Writing?—to which I say, probably because we tend to do whatever is least credible in our education policy.

A better question is Should We Ever Allow Computers To Grade Students’ Writing?—to which the answer is an unequivocal No! 

And thus I offer a reader of resources for speaking that truth to such calls:

Apologies to Sandra Cisneros, Maja Wilson

NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring

Thomas, P.L. (2005, May). Grading student writing: High-stakes testing, computers, and the human touch. English Journal, 94 (5), 28-30:

As a writer, I cannot imagine composing without my trusted iMac and iBook. And as a writing teacher, I watched the value computers and word processors had for my students—particularly as the technology contributed to students’ ability to write more and to revise more efficiently. While computers and computer programs do offer a huge benefit for the teaching of writing, they must remain merely a tool; we cannot allow anyone to suggest that computers can substitute for humans in the ultimate evaluation of a composition.

Our students’ writing has “something the tests and machines will never be able to measure,” and it is now the duty of all writing teachers to make known the art of human assessment of writing. (pp. 29-30)

[1] Please see the following:

Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

More on Failing Writing, and Students

New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again

RECOMMENDED: Writing Instruction that Works, Applebee and Langer

For Additional Reading

Computer Writer Vs. Computer Grader

Critique of Mark D. Shermis & Ben Hammer, “Contrasting State-of-the-Art Automated Scoring of Essays: Analysis,” Les C. Perelman

Writing Instructor, Skeptical of Automated Grading, Pits Machine vs. Machine

Computerized Grading: Purloining the Analysis, the Most Fundamental Exposition of Humanity

Flunk the robo-graders

4 comments

  1. Pingback: Writing Is a Journey: Thoughts on Writing, College, and the SAT | the becoming radical
  2. Pingback: Consumed by the Digital Divide | the becoming radical
  3. Pingback: Papa | the becoming radical
  4. Pingback: Are we teaching students to be good writers? | Teaching First Year Seminars

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