Can Software Spot a Great Essay? Computers Advance as Writing Assessment Tool That Saves Teachers Time

By Jackson, Nancy Mann | District Administration, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Can Software Spot a Great Essay? Computers Advance as Writing Assessment Tool That Saves Teachers Time


Jackson, Nancy Mann, District Administration


Three times each year, middle school students in Birmingham, Michigan, take a 30-minute, timed writing assessment online. The test is done through Criterion, an ETS online writing evaluation service. Student writers receive immediate feedback on their grammar and mechanics, as well as links to exemplary writing that displays techniques the test-takers need to work on.

Remember, a computer tool, not the teacher, is doing this.

As Common Core standards require students to write extensively across the curriculum, such automatic assessment tools can help ease the grading burden for teachers. More districts are using online writing assessment tools to save teachers time and to give students writing practice that includes immediate analysis. These programs bring the futuristic intelligence of machines to today's classrooms, helping to achieve rigorous educational standards with high technology.

"Students learn best when they have immediate feedback on their writing," says Deborah Gollnitz, curriculum coordinator at Birmingham Public Schools, who views Criterion as a learning tool more than a scoring tool. "It is a learning tool for students and a teaching tool for teachers."

For instance, when students are regularly reminded to use active voice or avoid sentence fragments, they will eventually internalize those techniques. And teachers can see where students are tripping up on grammar and can create a lesson on problem areas for the very next day. Teachers also might pull small groups of students out to work on certain skills.

Students nationwide need more effective, consistent training in writing. In 2012, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered the Writing Computer-Based Assessment to about 13,000 fourth graders.

The assessment measured students' abilities to develop, organize and express ideas to achieve a purpose and address a specific audience. About 14 percent of the responses demonstrated competent or effective writing skills--meaning the writing was fairly balanced, it reflected some awareness of the audience, and demonstrated proper grammar and mechanics.

In addition to more and longer writing assignments, the Common Core increases focus on writing on computers and includes computer-based writing assessments. While technology is no substitute for real, live teachers, the consistent use of online grading tools in the classroom is helping to improve students' writing, says Luci Willits, deputy executive director at Smarter Balanced.

Following are case studies from three districts that use online writing assessment tools to build students' writing skills.

Placentia Yorba Linda USD Orange County, California

About 15 years ago, Kraemer Middle School in Placentia Yorba Linda USD began using ETS' Criterion online writing evaluation as a pilot program with honors classes. Because of the program's ability to individualize assignments to include various levels of students--as well as its ability to give users more writing chances with timely feedback--the school has a subscription for every student, says Shane Twamley, language arts teacher.

Criterion's e-rater engine identifies writing features in essays that can be used for scoring and feedback. The e-rater engine provides both a holistic essay score as well as real-time diagnostic feedback about grammar, usage, mechanics, style, organization and development. This feedback is based on natural language processing research that is specifically tailored to analyzing student responses.

With online assessment, students can resubmit their essays several times, allowing them to practice peer-editing and revision. "Student writing can tend to be a one-shot deal, but now our students enjoy the editing process, as they see how it can improve their writing and scores," Twamley says. "Editing and revision simplifies the task of the teacher so they can do a better job of reading for the students' completion of ideas. …

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