Writing and reading robots square off. Will students lose?

Grading Papers

Following an epic battle of the bots that concluded the Cambridge Science Festival, machines face off again but this time in the academic arena.

It’s Automatic Essay Writer vs. RoboGrader, a contest with student and teacher performance caught in the crossfire.

Automated graders scan documents somewhat mysteriously, generally favoring length both in words per essay and letters per word.

One key problem, according to an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe, is that prose like this:

“According to professor of theory of knowledge Leon Trotsky, privacy is the most fundamental report of humankind. Radiation on advocates to an orator transmits gamma rays of parsimony to implode.”

Receive grades like this: A+.

Les Perelman, alongside two MIT and one Harvard student, created the essay writing machine specifically to battle robotic graders. Perelman authored today’s op-ed and is the subject of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education investigation.

He contends that the issue is not necessarily the theory of robotic grading but the quality control of companies peddling the technology.

As it stands two key metrics for a successful essay — according to robots — are length and voracious verbiage or lavish limericks or, simply, fancy-pants words. Both are qualities that further hinder already disenfranchised groups and have little to do with quality writing, Perelman says.

As part of a collection of states developing assessments for the Common Core Curriculum, Massacusetts is contracted with a firm that used automatic grading to parse through SAT essays. Perelman worries that the robots will become part of the Common Core grading standard with little oversight on the methodology and algorithms.

I, for one, am all for it. If Automatic Essay Writer can consistently outsmart RoboGrader, editors surely would be satisfied and I could take a warm — unpaid — vacation until the weather gets nicer in the Commonwealth. You all could read something that resembles Lorem Ipsum, right?

Image licensed under Creative Commons by Jo Guldi.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at george.levines@gmail.com.
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