A new test for computers: Grading college essays

  • April 4, 2013 - 11:55 PM

Imagine taking a college exam and, instead of handing in a blue book and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the “send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program.

And then, instead of being done with that exam, imagine that the system would immediately let you rewrite the test to try to improve your grade.

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it. The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers.

The service will bring the educational consortium into a growing conflict over the role of automation in education. Although automated grading systems for multiple-choice and true-false tests are widespread, the use of technology to grade essay answers has not yet received widespread endorsement by educators and has many critics. Skeptics say the automated system is no match for live teachers. One critic, Les Perelman, has drawn national attention for putting together nonsense essays that have fooled software grading programs into giving high marks.

But EdX expects its software to be adopted widely. EdX offers free online classes from Harvard, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley; this fall, it will add classes from Wellesley, Georgetown and the University of Texas. In all, 12 universities participate in EdX. The assessment tool requires human graders to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers almost instantaneously.

new york times

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