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EDUCATION REPORT - Computer-Graded Writing - 2004-08-11

Broadcast: August 12, 2004

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English Education Report.

Last year, a report by a committee of education experts said a lot of American students cannot write well. The report noted the concerns of business leaders and teachers. The experts said more students should have to pass a writing test before they can finish high school. They pointed out that major college entrance tests are changing now to include a writing part.

Educators know that teaching students to write well is not easy. One problem is the amount of time needed to read through large amounts of work. So some companies have developed computer programs. These can grade student writing much more quickly than a human can. Writing tests can also cost less to administer by computer than by paper-and-pencil.

These computer systems are known as e-raters. They use artificial intelligence to think in a way like teachers. In the state of Indiana, computer grading of a statewide writing test began with a test of the system itself. For two years, both a computer and humans graded the student writing. Officials say there was almost no difference between the computer grades and those given by the human readers.

The entrance test commonly used by business schools, the GMAT, already uses e-readers. The G.R.E. and TOEFL tests might start; officials are deciding. The G.R.E. is the Graduate Record Examination. TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

Systems are also being used to grade writing in college classes. The computers read a few hundred examples of student writing already graded by humans. Then the systems compare new essays against those already examined.

How do teachers feel about all this? Many say machines can never do the job as well as people can. A computer can find spelling and grammar mistakes. But these teachers say it can never really understand what a writer is trying to say. Critics say a program cannot follow a thought or judge humor or understand a beautifully expressed idea.

But creators of the programs say computer grading guarantees that each piece of writing is graded in the same way. They also say the systems are meant to judge knowledge more than creativity.

This VOA Special English Education Report was written by Nancy Steinbach. This is Steve Ember.