CYBERSPACE, 2004 (D.O.T.) - In the computer lab at Warren Central High School in mid-May, Craig Butler, a junior, squinted at the question on his screen, paused to ponder his answer and began typing. Craig was one of 48,500 Indiana juniors gathering in high schools across the state to take the end-of-year online English essay test. Unlike most essay tests, however, this one is being graded not by a teacher but by a computer.
Craig has already decided he prefers computer grading. "Teachers, you know, they're human, so they have to stumble around telling you what you need to do," he said at a practice session. "A computer can put it in fine print what you did wrong and how to fix it."
But his English teacher, Richard P. Dayment, wonders whether the computer is up to the task. "For the computer to do the subjective grading that's necessary on an essay, I'll want to see it before I have faith in it," he said.
Indiana is the first state to use a computer-scored English essay test in a statewide assessment, and its experience could influence testing decisions in other states. Eighteen states now require students to pass a writing test for high school graduation, and, starting next year, both the SAT and the ACT will include writing in their college admission exams.
"In five years at least 10 more states will be at or beyond the pilot stage" of automated essay scoring, predicts Richard Swartz, executive director of technology products and services at the Educational Testing Service, designers of Indiana's online essay-grading software.
Still, skepticism abounds. Although English teachers at Warren Central applaud the computer's ability to evaluate spelling, punctuation, grammar and organization, Richard C. Reed, the department chairman, made it clear that "we are not 100 percent sold on the computer's ability to grade content."
Kathryn L. Allison, the English department chairwoman at North Central High School nearby, doubts that the computer can accurately assess the quality of grammatically correct and well-structured student essays that lack substance or are wrong on the facts. "Are kids going to be rewarded for having pedestrian-type answers?" she asked.
Students, too, worry about the computer's accuracy.
"I always wonder if, like, the computer is going to grade everything right," said Jared Rampersaud, a senior at North Central, who took the test during the 2003 trial run, adding that "the teacher knows me and the computer doesn't."
Jared's classmate Mollie Mott agreed. "We're always told that even the computer makes mistakes," she said. "I just think it helps if a person can actually look at" the essay.
How soon other states will emulate Indiana will depend, in part, on how well the machine's performance compares to that of human graders. So far, pilot tests in Oregon , Pennsylvania , Massachusetts and South Dakota have failed to persuade those states to abandon teachers' grading.
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