We’ve had automated scoring devices for objective tests (multiple choice, matching, etc.) for a long time but grading essay questions has always been the province of human beings. Maybe not for much longer. The Educational Testing Service, that bastion of standardized testing, is trying out a new system that has a computer score written answers and essays. About 2700 teachers are using the system and seem to like the results but I imagine there will be some resistance.

"There’s a lot of skepticism," Dr. Spatola said. "The people opposed see it dehumanizing the student’s papers, putting them through some sort of mechanical, computerized system like the multiple choice tests. That’s really not the case, because we’re not talking about eliminating the human element. We’re making the process more efficient.”

"Kids like it," Dr. Spatola added. "They don’t mind doing multiple revisions since they get the immediate feedback." As for results, he mentioned that one of his composition students who used Criterion won the college’s annual writing contest. (It was judged wholly by humans.)

Count me among the skeptics. I would expect the computer could do a good job of spotting problems with spelling, grammar, organization and the other structural features and evidently the computer can "learn" how a particular person would score various essays and then mimic that scoring. The technology is still evolving but a tool like this could be a major help to English teachers with large numbers of essays to grade. However, even if it proves to be close to perfect, I’m still not sure teachers should turn all their scoring over to the machine.

But Dr. Cheville of Rutgers worries that such technologies will ultimately undermine instruction by discouraging direct communication between teachers and students, and students and their peers. "Writing is a social practice, and it’s the job of teachers to orchestrate rituals and relationships that support effective and meaningful writing," she said. "To do that, teachers need appropriate class sizes and professional development far more than they need a particular technology."