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Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineer who is president of EdX, predicted that the instant-grading software would be a useful pedagogical tool, enabling students to take tests and write essays over and over and improve the quality of their answers. He said the technology would offer distinct advantages over the traditional classroom system, where students often wait days or weeks for grades.

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Agarwal said. But skeptics say the automated system is no match for live teachers. One longtime critic, Les Perelman, has drawn national attention several times for putting together nonsense essays that have fooled software grading programs into giving high marks. He has also been highly critical of studies that purport to show that the software compares well to human graders.

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Perelman, a retired director of writing and a current researcher at M. He is among a group of educators who last month began circulating a petition opposing automated assessment software. The group, which calls itself Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment , has collected nearly 2, signatures, including some from luminaries like Noam Chomsky. But EdX expects its software to be adopted widely by schools and universities. EdX offers free online classes from Harvard, M.

Researcher studies teachers' use of automated essay scoring software

In all, 12 universities participate in EdX, which offers certificates for course completion and has said that it plans to continue to expand next year, including adding international schools. The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade essays or essay questions.

The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously. The software will assign a grade depending on the scoring system created by the teacher, whether it is a letter grade or numerical rank. It will also provide general feedback, like telling a student whether an answer was on topic or not.

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Agarwal said he believed that the software was nearing the capability of human grading. The first is that somebody has to pick the exemplars, so hello again, human bias. The second is that this narrows the AI's view by saying that a good essay is one that looks a lot like these other essays.

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So much for open-ended questions and divergent thinking. But the biggest problem with robo-grading continues to be the algorithm's inability to distinguish between quality and drivel. He pulled up a letter of recommendation he had written, replaced the student's name with words from a Criterion writing prompt, and replaced the word "the" with "chimpanzee.

The king of robo-score debunking is Les Perelman. More recently, the former MIT professor teamed up with some students to create BABEL, a computer program that can create gibberish essays that other computer programs score as outstanding pieces of writing. Robo-scoring fans like to reference a study by Mark Shermis University of Akron and Ben Hamner, in which computers and human scorers produced near-identical scores for a batch of essays.

Perelman tore the study apart pretty thoroughly. The full dismantling is here , but the basic problem, beyond methodology itself, was that the testing industry has its own definition of what the task of writing should be, which more about a performance task than an actual expression of thought and meaning.

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The secret of all studies of this type is simple-- make the humans follow the same algorithm used by the computer rather than he kind of scoring that an actual English teacher would use. The unhappy lesson there is that the robo-graders merely exacerbate the problems created by standardized writing tests. The point is not that robo-graders can't recognize gibberish. The point is that their inability to distinguish between good writing and baloney makes them easy to game.

Use some big words. Repeat words from the prompt.

Automated Essay Scoring | Measurement Incorporated

Fill up lots of space. Students can rapidly learn performative system gaming for an audience of software. And the people selling this baloney can't tell the difference themselves. That's underlined by a horrifying quote in the NPR piece.

Says the senior research scientist at ETS, " If someone is smart enough to pay attention to all the things that an automated system pays attention to, and to incorporate them in their writing, that's no longer gaming, that's good writing. In other words, rather than trying to make software recognize good writing, we'll simply redefine good writing as what the software can recognize.