Grading software fails students’ education

by Madison Hopkins

I’m a writer. Hopefully this is obvious because you are reading this and my name is at the end of the column. I take pride in a finished written piece and hope my readers enjoy the argument I constructed. What I wouldn’t like is to put in all the effort of creating a unique and thoughtful story only to have a computer label its worth based on some engineer’s uninspired idea of the ideal essay.

Unfortunately for me, and many other students, this may soon be the fate of all our hard work. EdX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently created an automated grading software. It’s supposedly able to grade essays and short answers equivalent to the ability of a human grader.

According to The New York Times, the program first requires an instructor to grade 100 essays by hand. Then, the software uses artificial intelligence to create grading algorithms and standards.

The point is for students to submit essays to the program and receive an instant grade back based on how much of the computer-generated criteria is met. It therefore eliminates the long, tedious hours professors spend grading and the apparently unmanageable wait time for students to receive their work back.

Is it efficient? Yes, but is it worth it? Not in the slightest. What the technically minded brains at EdX failed to consider was the subjectivity of writing and the impossibility of a computer to grasp the emotional response from written work. Sure, it can scan for key phrases and correct citations. But can a computer appreciate the creativity of an outside-the-box response?

San Diego State English and comparative literature professor Alida Allison doesn’t think so. Although she grades more than 100 essays per semester (without help from any teaching assistants), she firmly believes in the necessity of human grading and will not use any computerized grading software as it becomes available.

Thousands of educators across the country feel the same way. Last month, a petition by the group Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessments began circulating and now carries more than 3,000 signatures. These are the people who are meant to be the primary benefactors of such a program, and even they don’t support it.

Students who just want to meet the bare minimum requirements and be done with writing essays will surely be ecstatic about the possibility for even more blandness. But for those of us who enjoy the creative opportunities presented by a blank page, it’s just one more way to conform to the standardization of education. The same way instructors of elementary and high school students often focus class material on tips and tricks to pass standardized tests, English teachers may soon only instruct on the best way to match a machine’s requirements. The point of a written assignment is to challenge students to think critically and stand out from one another. By creating a program with one correct answer, students will create one response.

Chances are it wouldn’t even stop there. I doubt it would be long before some of the more tech-savvy students crack the code for the necessary requirements of an A paper. One critic has already accomplished that by creating nonsense sentences, which tricked essay-grading softwares into granting him a good grade. The implications of situations such as this on the SATs or Advanced Placement exams could throw off the whole system. How do you compare a student who wrote a thought-provoking, original response with one who wrote random phrases that met the requirements? Well, if it’s the computer making the decision, it may just give them the same grade.

In a time where art and music programs are being cut throughout the country, we need to salvage what little creative education we have left. Although an automated grader would save money on hiring instructors and teaching assistants, it comes at the expense of originality.  Technology is meant to make life easier, not to control it. To even create software such as this requires innovative thinking. If we continue to expect new ideas, we must encourage individuality, not restrict it to the limitations of a machine.


— Assistant Opinion Editor Madison Hopkins is a journalism and media studies junior