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Computers to Grade Essay Tests

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February 2, 2005

Michigan will soon begin a pilot program that will feature, in part, electronic grading of essay tests. State education officials hope that the idea will catch on enough that it will save time and money for teachers and also increase writing skills of students.

Such a practice is already in place in Indiana, where some officials have used computerized grading of essays for a few years now. (This process is not used on tests that assess whether students advance to the next level.)

Many people worry that by eliminating the human element (a teacher or education professional hand-grading the test and personally evaluating what students wrote), education officials will eliminate the one thing that computers can't provide: subjectivity. In other words, these people say, the test will be turned into more of a writing skills test than a content evaluation test. Computer grading models might be designed to look specifically for the most economical way of writing things, for instance; and some students might write perfectly acceptable answers that happen to include a few more words or roundabout reasoning. The result might very well be that those students get fewer points than the one who write more economically and to the point.

The Michigan program will not be used to grade essays written for the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), which measures yearly progress. And when the process is used under the pilot program, people will grade the tests as well, to evaluate how well the computer program grades.

The pilot program will initially be used only for sixth-grade classes whose teachers and principals volunteer. Students will be provided with laptop computers and will be given several "warmup" writing assignments, to get them used to writing using their computers. Teachers will be given training in the way that the grading software program works.

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