Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences

Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences

Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences

Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences


The current trend toward machine-scoring of student work, Ericsson and Haswell argue, has created an emerging issue with implications for higher education across the disciplines, but with particular importance for those in English departments and in administration. The academic community has been silent on the issue-some would say excluded from it-while the commercial entities who develop essay-scoring software have been very active.

Machine Scoring of Student Essays is the first volume to seriously consider the educational mechanisms and consequences of this trend, and it offers important discussions from some of the leading scholars in writing assessment.

Reading and evaluating student writing is a time-consuming process, yet it is a vital part of both student placement and coursework at post-secondary institutions. In recent years, commercial computer-evaluation programs have been developed to score student essays in both of these contexts. Two-year colleges have been especially drawn to these programs, but four-year institutions are moving to them as well, because of the cost-savings they promise. Unfortunately, to a large extent, the programs have been written, and institutions are installing them, without attention to their instructional validity or adequacy.

Since the education software companies are moving so rapidly into what they perceive as a promising new market, a wider discussion of machine-scoring is vital if scholars hope to influence development and/or implementation of the programs being created. What is needed, then, is a critical resource to help teachers and administrators evaluate programs they might be considering, and to more fully envision the instructional consequences of adopting them. And this is the resource that Ericsson and Haswell are providing here.


Patricia Freitag Ericsson and Richard H. Haswell

We’re in the fifth year of the twenty-first century and the Parliament of India, several universities in Italy, and four Catholic churches in Monterrey, Mexico, all have bought cell-phone jammers. Meanwhile in the State of Texas, usa, the State Board of Education has decided that students who fail the essay-writing part of the state’s college entrance examination can retake it either with ACT’s compass tests using eWrite or with the College Board’s accuplacer tests using WritePlacer Plus. Though dispersed geographically, these events have one thing in common. They illustrate how new technology can sneak in the back door and establish itself while those at the front gates, nominally in charge, are not much noticing. All of a sudden cell phones are disturbing legislative sessions and church services and allowing students to cheat on examinations in new ways. All of a sudden students can pass entrance examination essays in ways never allowed before, with their essays scored by machines running commercial software programs. How did this technology happen so fast?

And where were educators when it happened? We will leave the MPs in India and the deacons in Mexico to account for themselves, but as for automated essay scoring in the State of Texas, college educators can only throw up their hands. the decisions on e-Write and WritePlacer Plus were made by state government officials and industry lobbyists with no input from writing experts or administrators in higher education. the Texas step toward machine grading may not be typical so far. But in the near future there will be plenty of like steps taken everywhere in academe.

The analysis and scoring of student essays by computer—the history, the mechanisms, the theory, and the educational consequences—is the topic of this collection of essays. It is an understatement to say that the topic is rapidly growing in importance at all levels of the educational enterprise, and that the perspective on it has been, up to this point, dominated almost exclusively by the commercial purveyors of the product. Other than the notable exceptions of articles by Dennis Baron in the Chronicle of Higher Education (1998), Anne Herrington and Charles Moran in College English (2001), Julie Cheville in English Journal (2004), and Michael Williamson in the Journal of Writing Assessment (2004) and . . .

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