Do Androids Dream of Computer-Graded Essay Tests?

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “When the Circus Descends,” David Brooks derided opponents of Common Core Standards, implying that they were clownish ideologues on the far left and far right making “hysterical claims and fevered accusations.” But as I visit classrooms across the city talking to teachers about the Common Core, I don’t hear any hysterical claims or fevered accusations. I do hear one deep concern:

That the test will be a disaster.

Here’s the thing: I haven’t talked to anybody—anybody!—who objects to the actual Common Cores Standards. The Standards are incredibly general; basically, they value the processes of analytical reasoning, reading, writing, speaking and listening. Teachers I’ve talked to are excited about pushing their students to read  thoughtfully and support their claims with evidence.  In other words, the Standards are like the education version of Peace, Love and Understanding. Who could possibly object?

The problem is that we are about to test the standards—and people do not like the tests. The teachers on the East Coast who are protesting, the children fleeing classrooms in tears, the parents forming an “Opt Out” movement are not a bunch of ideological clowns. They are angry because this new Common Core test, which has been implemented sight unseen by almost any teacher or principal, may have enormous power over their future without any serious public discussion. What are these tests, exactly? Do they even measure the standards?

Here in California, where the launch has been much slower, teachers across Los Angeles are administering a field test version of the Common Core test this month. There are two versions being rolled out nationally — here, it’s the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test.

This morning, I took the online practice test for 11th grade English. Here’s a breakdown of what it is, what it isn’t and whether it measures the standards:

First, it’s not only multiple choice but it does have some multiple-choice elements. As on the California State Tests or the Verbal SAT, students are required to read short passages and answer multiple-choice comprehension questions. The content tends to be grounded in practical real-world concerns: whether a city should fund public art, whether teenagers should have a curfew, whether water should be fluoridated.

Sometimes students can pick more than one correct answer. The emphasis is on identifying the author’s main argument and analyzing the text for evidence supporting the argument, picking out sentences that support the main thesis and eliminating those that are irrelevant. Will this help our students read more deeply? Maybe—as long as it doesn’t become a mechanical search for related elements, without the deep intuitive thinking that makes ideas coherent.

Second, the test has some short answers and some longer written responses. In some places students have to construct short answers, which they type into boxes. In other sections, they have to write a persuasive letter or a short opinion piece based on an analysis of one or two texts. Though this option would seem to be much better than multiple choice questions, the effect may be similar depending on how these answers, letters and essays are graded.

Are students being graded on grammar? Spelling? Complexity of sentence construction? Correctness of the response? Most alarmingly, as a colleague said to me, “it is not clear whether these tests are going to be graded by humans.”

He was not being sarcastic.

I’m serious: people are actually, seriously talking about computer-graded essays, enough that scientists have tested them against “human-graded” essays.  Apparently computer-graded essays give higher scores for longer words regardless of context. Will teachers be pressured to coach their students to fill their essays with preposterous words?  Can we put Shakespeare through the computer-grader?

Most likely, the essays will be graded by moonlighting teachers using a rubric, or chart, of the desired qualities. Is this a good thing? I don’t know—how good is the teacher? And how is this test actually any better than the SAT writing test that was just thrown out because, according to the College Board, it was “not predictive” of student success? How is it better than the California State Exit Exam writing test taken by all students for graduation? Or the EAP writing test they all take for college placement? Our students already take writing tests up the wazoo. Nobody seems to think it has helped them write, and a lot of teachers (including me) think it has made their writing worse.

In one chilling section of the practice SBAC test, students are asked to revise a creative writing piece to include dialogue and description, a task whose implications are so dystopian that satire would be inadequate.

The problem with standardized essays is just that: they’re standardized. In other words, preparing for them tends to produce formulaic writing, reading and thinking, the very writing, reading and thinking that caused us to despair that our students couldn’t write, read or think, and made us adopt the Common Core in the first place. These new tests definitely rely more on the seeking of evidence and the analysis of arguments. Studying for them will, at the lowest level, probably inculcate the mechanical production of those skills, which is better than not having them at all.

So if I say I’m underwhelmed, I hope I’m not being a clown. Yes, the practice test embodies some aspects of a reductive form of analytic thinking, in that Flatland two-dimensional sense that seems to dominate so much of educational thinking these days. But does it really measure what we want our students to learn? Take the online practice test yourself. What do you think?

Maybe the best test of Common Core skills will be our ability to have a civilized public discussion of how they measure up to our ideals of what an education should be.

A slightly different version of this post appeared in L.A. School Report.

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3 thoughts on “Do Androids Dream of Computer-Graded Essay Tests?”

  1. The issue is that teachers are NOT ALLOWED TO SEE what’s on the test although their students will be given the test that decides in many areas whether or not the teacher keeps their job. Being able to take an online sample test is only a glimpse, but it doesn’t relieve the pressure.Learning how to change a tire while the bus is rolling how Common Core is seen by most teachers, whether they like the standards or not.

    That pressure to perform coupled with the fact that even the “end of the year” testing (that usually comes with a month or two to go), is not the ONLY test. There are bi-monthly benchmark tests, test prep, ad nauseum and the ever-present reminders that the kids HAVE TO PASS the test. Multiply that by the testing conditions of sitting children in silence for several hours, ripping down anything posted as “learning support” including inspirational posters, and foregoing “fun” activities to build in more time to prepare and it’s an exhausting event.

    Very few teachers care about getting back those scores (no matter what they say aloud) because “getting ready for the test” is the grueling, fear-inducing, exhausting part of teaching children to love learning.

    1. Right–and now in New York they are making test prep illegal, or trying to. Meanwhile test scores are likely to be tied to teacher evaluations and school ratings, along with a general demand for “accountability.” Read this and weep: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/01/education/test-prep-endures-in-new-york-schools-despite-calls-to-ease-it.html
      And we’re going to be shocked, shocked, to find that there’s still an achievement gap between low-income students of color and their more affluent peers. What’s next? Fire all the teachers in underserved communities? Replace them with…?

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