Can computers really grade essay tests?

“The National Council of Teachers of English say ‘no,’ even if there is new software that says ‘yes.'” –Washington Post story by Valerie Strauss

One of my students recently brought to my attention a New York Times article about a new, free software that uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays almost instantaneously. Its source is a non-profit enterprise called EdX, launched by Harvard and MIT last fall. Earlier this month, Stanford announced that it would work with EdX to develop a joint educational system that will incorporate the automated assessment technology. My student thought the immediate feedback would be nice, but was skeptical about accuracy, and aware of her teachers’ reactions to being replaced.

She was right– The National Council of Teachers of English released their opinion last week, coming out strongly against automated essay grading.

But some educators, including Professor Mark D. Shermis from the University of Akron in Ohio, argue that the technology has a place in educational settings. Class size, especially that of online classes, is increasing rapidly, and human graders cost more, take longer, and are in relatively short supply. As a result, it is impossible for teachers to offer meaningful feedback on written responses, if they require them at all. If the choice is between offering only multiple choice tests and computer-graded essays, which would we rather?

What do you think? Is this increasingly popular and perhaps influential technology “super-cool” or scary?

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