English language skills to be determined by ‘robots’

One of the leading English language education companies, Pearson, has fully automated International English examinations that overseas students must take before being accepted into university.  While computers have been used to grade multiple choice and short answer questions successfully, many people have doubts about the ability of computers to really grasp long answers and complicated concepts.

From The Guardian:

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said that computers could be useful in many areas of assessment but cautioned against their use in English exams: “I’m very concerned that it would constrain the nature of the questions being asked. You won’t pick up nuances by machine and it will trigger a trend to answering narrower questions. It could be a disaster waiting to happen.”

A Pearson spokesman told the TES that its system produced the accuracy of human markers while eliminating human elements such as tiredness and subjectivity.

Other exam boards said the adoption of computers to mark beyond their current use in multiple choice tests was inevitable. Tim Oates, director of research for Cambridge Assessment, which owns the exam board OCR, said: “It’s extremely unlikely that automated systems will not be deployed extensively in educational assessment. The uncertainty is ‘when’ not ‘if’. But all systems need to meet exacting quality criteria and should definitely not be adopted just to make life easier for testing organisations.

It isn’t mentioned whether or not there will be ongoing human grading for quality control, or whether there will be any kind of appeals process, but I imagine if I were a student wanting to get into a university in the UK, I would definitely want to make sure I was getting the correct grade.  As well as this, effective communication in another language doesn’t solely rely on textbook answers.

In related news, according to existing electronic grading systems already in place in US schools, Winston Churchill (too much repetition), Ernest Hemingway (“lack of care in style of writing and vocabulary”), and William Golding (“inaccurate and erratic sentence structure”) would not have done very well at school.

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