Latest Standardized Testing Outrage: The SAT Prepares to Use Computers to Grade Student Essay Section
Up until now, the College Board has had a big problem with the essay section of its SAT exam. How could the company grade tens of thousands of handwritten SAT essays every year?
In years past, the College Board has been forced to hire actual human beings to grade all those essays. But according to “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously,” an article by Michael Winerip in The New York Times, that is about to change. Winerip reports that the College Board has developed a computer program called e-Rater that can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds.
That could save the College Board a ton of money every year. But Winerip also reports that an MIT professor named Les Perelman tested e-Rater and determined that it is easy to fool, for some intriguing reasons . . .
- e-Rater can’t catch factual errors. It gauges sentence structures mostly. Perelman says, “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945.”
- e-Rater can’t tell if you’re lying or writing nonsense. Perelman, for example, wrote an essay for the prompt, “Why does college cost too much?” In it, he wrote that the problem was that college teaching assistants are getting paid more than college presidents. E-Rater awarded him a perfect grade on the essay.
- e-Rater awards higher scores for longer sentences and longer paragraphs. The program has apparently been built to penalize students for writing short sentences.
- e-Rater likes pretentious words. You’ll score higher if you write “egregious” instead of “bad.”
And e-Rater isn’t the only automated essay reading program on the horizon. According to Winerip, at least two other companies have developed similar products.
The end result, we bet, will be that SAT tutors will start to coach students on how to write e-Rater-friendly essays that would never pass human scrutiny. Those essays will be long and packed with big words. Logical thinking and development of a thesis will go out the window.
Once again, students will be forced to learn specialized strategies to game the SAT, just as they have been doing in the reading, writing and math sections for years already. More than ever before, a high SAT score will only mean that a student has been trained to take the test, and little more.
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