Baby, you can’t light my fire…

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Automated test marking is not new. It has been around for years.  The grail is automated essay marking, and I fear we may be one step nearer with Xerox Ignite. A blog-post by Diane Ravitch Can Machines Grade Essays? Should They? drew my attention to this piece of software – the comments to her piece are well worth reading, and I’ve found out more thanks to Gizmodo Xerox’s New Grading Copiers Will Finally Make Scantron Obsolete and an article by Bob Yirka at Phys.Org Xerox to offer ‘Ignite’ software upgrade for copiers to let them grade school papers.

Yirka (unintenionally) sums up what’s wrong, sums up my fears, quite neatly:

Impressively, the new software can be used on virtually any kind of test: math, science, history, even essays. To do that, it works differently on different types of tasks. It can do normal grading for example, when there are clear answers, such as a single number answer to a math problem. For essays, it works more like a word processor, highlighting spelling and punctuation problems.


Disregarding this Grumpy Old Man’s fear that many teachers themselves have problems with spelling and punctuation and grammar and vocabulary, I shudder at the thought of essay-writing being reduced to mere word-processing. Heavens, all you need do is turn back on the Word spell- and grammar-checks that you turned off by default?
Xerox Ignite might work for teachers who care, who really do read and appreciate their students’ work – but do such teachers really need the software?  Lots more red ink, automatically generated, giving the teacher time to deal with other writing and composition problems?  I’m not so sure.

Just recently, I had the privilege of attending a Phil Beadle presentation at a conference in Gothenburg. Beadle told the story of Cerise (not her real name). He spoke of the importance of marking, of reading closely, of reading for more than the grammar and the spelling. Of reading the meaning, and the words behind the meaning and the meaning behind the words. He spoke of an extended 6-page essay that Cerise had written (for a different teacher the previous year), the first extended piece of work which Cerise had managed for more than a term, none of which had been marked, leaving Cerise less and less motivated.

Until the 6-page essay, at the end of which the teacher had given a tick and the comment “You need to use capital letters properly,” seemingly blind to the fact that the essay was Cerise’s attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death just a few weeks before. (The full story, and it is worth reading in full, is retold in a TES article, The importance of marking.)

What grade would Ignite have given Cerise’s essay, one wonders. And would she care? If only someone would, if only someone had.

(I wonder what Ignite would make of some of my sentences, some of the structures I use here?  I wonder what Ignite would make of Lewis Carroll, or e.e. cummings, or James Joyce…?)

2 thoughts on “Baby, you can’t light my fire…

  1. Pingback: Burnt offerings | Honesty, honestly…

  2. Pingback: Testing, testing, 1… | Honesty, honestly…

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