Cyber-exams give students instant marks

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IF A CALIFORNIA software company has its way, school and college teachers could soon be relieved of one of the most time-consuming chores: marking essays. And pupils could be deprived of one of those universal school experiences, looking in trepidation for the red-inked A, B or, more likely, C, at the end of their essay.

In the United States, where many routine education tests, right up to postgraduate college entrance, now take the form of multiple-choice questions and are marked by computer, a company based in Oakland, near San Francisco, says that it has gone one better, devising a programme that will actually mark essays.

The Intelligent Essay Assessor works on the principle of a template. The teacher or tester can feed in teaching materials, such as a textbook or article, and an essay that is deemed to warrant an excellent grade. The computer will absorb the information, and then "mark" essays according to how far they cover the requisite ground and how closely they resemble the "perfect" essay.

The program has been 10 years in development and has not yet been priced, but its release in the US may be well timed. American schools and education experts have become increasingly critical of multiple-choice testing, partly because of its inflexibility, partly because a lucky guesser may emerge with no worse a grade than someone who has worked hard in class and partly because of complaints from some ethnic minority groups that such tests have a cultural bias.

While computerised essay-marking could be vulnerable to objections similar to those applied to multiple-choice tests, the inventors of the Intelligent Essay Assessor say that it is far more sophisticated, being able to test spelling and grammar as well as knowlege and the ability to connect concepts. Being mechanical, it could provide a more "objective" standard of assessment. In controlled experiments, the computer's grades coincided with a majority of teachers' grades more often than not.

Critics say, however, that even if the software proves efficient and reliable, it could have an adverse effect on education, as it would remove one of the main points of contact between teachers and pupils, rendering the whole educational process mechanical.