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Sunday, August 1, 2004
I, Grader

By Steven Taylor @ 7:24 am

Computers Weighing In On the Elements of Essay

Many students who have agonized over getting a high-stakes essay just right express similar views. Yet few of them know that essay-grading computers are quietly making significant gains in the booming U.S. testing industry.

More than 2 million essays have been scored by e-rater since it was adopted for the GMAT in 1999, and the technology is being considered for use in the Graduate Record Examination, for graduate school admissions, and the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which assesses the English proficiency of immigrants entering U.S. schools.


The e-rater was developed in the 1990s by subjecting essays to a “natural language processing technology” that identifies grammar, sentence structure and strength of vocabulary. The computer also is programmed to scan for the elements present in a well-supported essay, said Richard Swartz, an executive with Educational Testing Service, which developed e-rater.

Given that writing is more than mechanics, I have a hard time seeing a computer program that could adequately score an essay-especially given the signficance of a few points on these tests, which can mean getting into a school (or not) or getting financial aid (or not). There can be a profound difference based on style and demonstrated depth of knowledge between two essays that otherwise have the same mechanical contents.

I can somewhat see if for the TOFL, where the issue is less style than straight-forward language proficiency, but still.

Filed under: Academia

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  1. I especially can’t imagine the usefulness of machine-graded essays for grad school admissions. I took the old version of the GRE (pre-writing assessment). All of the grad schools I applied to required some sort of writing sample, at least an essay about my research interests, etc. Half wanted a sample of my written research.

    I can’t imagine that they would have learned anything substantive about my writing ability from a machine-graded essay.

    Comment by Chip — Sunday, August 1, 2004 @ 7:46 am

  2. It might serve as a first pass type of grading by splitting out totally impossible essays, allowing teachers to concentrate on those that are readable.

    I just wonder what it would make of a paragraph or two from James Joyce…

    Comment by Kathy K — Sunday, August 1, 2004 @ 6:03 pm

  3. If there was a portion of marks devoted to writing style then I could see such a grading program being useful for providing an objective second opinion about that aspect of the essays. Students are much more likely to complain about marks they see as awarded for subjective reasons, and having some objective evidence to present to back up the grade from the essay marker is certainly no bad thing. However the whole essay couldn’t be marked by a computer, certainly.

    Fortunately I do not have to mark essays and for work that I do mark, the marking criteria are much more objective!

    Comment by Sharon — Tuesday, August 3, 2004 @ 8:40 am

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