Essay tests soon could take a high-tech twist in Michigan classrooms: State education officials want to launch a pilot project this school year that would use a computer program to grade students’ essay exams.

The futuristic technique–which, until now, has been employed mostly by pioneering school systems looking to give students more writing practice without creating more work for already overburdened teachers–first might be tested in Michigan with a relatively small group of sixth-graders, but if it succeeds, it could be ramped up statewide.

Using computers instead of people to grade essays could save time and money, state officials say. It also could help students become better writers, because computers can provide quicker feedback.

But the plan faces skepticism from those who say the human element should remain in essay evaluation.

Educators don’t doubt the computer software’s ability to grade spelling and punctuation, and they say it would save time for teachers, who often are stuck grading essay questions after school on their own time. But they have misgivings about the computer program’s ability to evaluate content, which often is subjective and subject to debate.

“We would hate to see the human element eliminated from something as important as evaluating a student’s writing,” said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “Involvement is crucial to the educator’s understanding of the student’s work.”

Jamey Fitzpatrick is interim president of Michigan Virtual University, a partner in the pilot project. He said teachers should be relieved, rather than worried, about the new technology.

“We are not looking to eliminate classroom teachers. We are looking to make their jobs easier,” he said. “From our understanding, this is becoming a more mature technology. It no longer is a technology in its infancy.”

Details of Michigan’s
possible essay-grading pilot

Michigan education officials hope to start a pilot program that would use computer software to evaluate some essay answers on student exams this school year. Here are the early details:

  • Sixth-grade classrooms, most likely those already participating in a state program that provides laptop computers to individual students, would be chosen for the pilot program.

  • Students would take their essay tests on a computer, so their answers would be typed in.

  • Teachers would agree to give a certain number of writing assignments during the pilot program period. Teachers also would agree to be trained on the technology.

  • Tests would be graded both by a computer program and by people to evaluate how well the computer program is doing.

  • The pilot program likely would not be used for high-stakes tests such as the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests, which are used to measure whether schools are meeting annual yearly progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

    Source: Michigan Department of Education

  • Indiana is considered a national leader in using the technology. The state uses a computer program to grade some end-of-the-year algebra tests and English exams for high school juniors, who type in their answers on keyboards.

    Indiana ran a two-year pilot program–with computers and trained human readers simultaneously grading essays–to test the computer program’s merits. Indiana doesn’t yet use the computer program to grade essays that measure whether students are making the adequate yearly progress required under federal law, but that could be done in the future.

    “The response has been good,” said Jason Bearce, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We are learning as we go, but we feel it has definite advantages.”

    Indiana spends more than $1 million a year on the project, but state officials say it eventually will save them money as the system matures.

    A handful of companies–including Educational Testing Service (ETS), Pearson Education, and Vantage Learning–have developed software to grade essay tests, and they say several states, including Michigan, have inquired about following Indiana’s lead.

    So far, however, the only high-stakes test that uses an assessment engine to mark its writing component is the Graduate Management Admission Test, for which each test is scored twice, once by a human and once by ETS’s e-Rater software. (See “eSN Special Report: Instructional Writing Tools.“)

    “The question is whether it’s reliable enough to be used for a high-stakes test,” said Jeremy Hughes, chief academic officer for the Michigan Department of Education.

    Until the state figures that out, Michigan’s pilot project will be limited and won’t involve grading essays that are part of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), the state’s main measuring stick for adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

    Even when computers are used, the essays also will be evaluated by people to determine how accurately the computer program scores the papers during the pilot phase.

    Sixth-grade classrooms will be selected for the pilot soon, Hughes said. The classrooms selected will be among those in which students received their own laptop computers through a state program, so being able to type their essays on a computer shouldn’t be a problem.

    Teachers must agree to attend training to use the computer software. They also must agree to make a yet-to-be-determined number of writing assignments that will be given to students during the pilot project.

    Hughes became interested in the technology after attending an educational assessment seminar last year. If the technology proves itself, he said, it could eventually be used to grade essay tests that are part of statewide testing.

    That could provide a huge cost savings to the state. But even if the state decides it wants computers to grade essays, it might find it has fewer essays to grade. Education officials may have to eliminate essays from some statewide tests next year if the state Department of Education is forced to trim its assessment office budget.

    Scrapping MEAP essays would save about $7 million, Hughes said. State standards require at least two trained people to read and evaluate MEAP essay questions, making it expensive and labor-intensive.

    No final decisions have been made on the budget or on whether some essays will be eliminated. But the possibility already is causing alarm.

    “An essay adds to the quality and integrity of a high-stakes test,” said Nancy Danhof, a Republican from East Lansing, Mich., and the newest member of the State Board of Education.

    “Why would we want to get rid of that knowing it decreases the reliability and viability of a test, when we are already under fire for that?” she asked.


    Michigan Department of Education

    Michigan Virtual University

    Michigan Education Association