Bill Daggett is wrong on computers grading writing

gettysburg-address-2
Yes, it may be among the greatest texts shared with America, but it only scores a 2. Taken from Gettysburg Address from history.howstuffworks.com

Among the most offensive moments in Bill Daggett’s presentation, which, again, I admit I came to prepared to be skeptical, were related to English teachers. But again, I am biased: I am an English teacher.

Bill Daggett stated that students should write at least a page a day.  I agree with that, believing that writing often will assist growth, and firmly believing that writing is thinking made visible.

The problem is  Daggett’s suggestion that we should simply hire out the scoring of writing to automatic scanners.  Daggett asserted that computer scoring is so much more effective than human scoring, as computers catch more errors.  This debate  is not new, but it overlooks much.

First, when Daggett is talking about scorers, he is talking about scorers in a testing situation, each of which get little time to read an essay.  According to a NYT article, “the Pearson education company expects readers to spend no more than two to three minutes per essay.”  Two to three minutes gives an overview score of the writing; it doesn’t truly analyze or teach.

Now some would argue that is the point: teaching writing is laborious and the grading is just too much.  If we could remove labor, well, then life would be great.

But I disagree.  I concur completely with Doug Hesse, Executive Director of Writing at the University of Denver when he states, “I see responding to student writing as teaching, in fact, as the most important element of teaching writing.”  I do not score student writing.  I coach it.  That requires far more than 2 to 3 minutes a paper, and  the comments  matter, not the score. (Or at least that is my earnest hope.)

Then there is simply how ludicrous computer scoring currently is.  While scoring may very well improve to where electronics can tell fact from fiction and style from mistake, it simply isn’t there yet.  An NPR article revealed that “of the 12 errors noted in one essay, 11 were incorrect,” and The Gettysburg Address (!!The Gettysburg Address!!) would score as a 2 on a 1-6 scale.

Nothing, however, shows the craziness like the NYT article:

“E-Rater. . . does not like short sentences.

Or short paragraphs.

Or sentences that begin with “or.” And sentences that start with “and.” Nor sentence fragments.

However, he said, e-Rater likes connectors, like “however,” which serve as programming proxies for complex thinking. Moreover, “moreover” is good, too.

Gargantuan words are indemnified because e-Rater interprets them as a sign of lexical complexity. “Whenever possible,” Mr. Perelman advises, “use a big word. ‘Egregious’ is better than ‘bad.’ ‘”

So, Mr. Bill Daggett, the answer to education is not computer grading of writing.  It is not to sneer at English teachers, implying we haven’t been following this technology or this debate.

The answer to education, as always, is in relationships.  It is in keeping class size low enough that I can reasonably coach writing.  It is in dedicated professionals with stable, compensated employment that provides opportunities to grow.  It is in daily hard work.

The work so many of my colleagues do to perfection year after year.

Other sources used to prepare for this post include an Inside Higher Ed article; A Sherman Dorn blog post where there is a good idea: what if teacher required students to run their essays through robograder until it was a B or better and then coached from there, minor errors now taken care of; a Wired article; and a Slate article.

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