I’m just catching up on the dead-tree Chronicle, so just came upon this front-page piece by Jeffrey R. Young from the Aug. 12 issue. It seems that grade inflation, and the misguided demand to make education prove its value by numbers, has led some universities to cut out their brains to spite their faces. Or, to put it more neutrally, they’re not only hiring low-cost contract labor to grade papers, they’re also using computers to grade answers to essay questions. “Robot grading is the hottest trend in testing circles,” says the editor of the journal Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice.
The two universities mentioned by name as robograders are the University of Central Florida and the University of Missouri, Columbia. But this trend can’t even be laid at the door exclusively of the American mania for numerical measurement, since the editor of said journal is Canadian.
In any event, we see on p. A5 a sample rating from an intro sociology course at Missouri. A program called SAGrader assigned the grade of 7.2 out of 9 points to an exam essay answer about Max Weber and why he matters. This answer includes the following:
• This opening sentence: ”Max Weber revolutionized in the idea of academic discipline of sociology.” This sounds like something written by a machine whose first language was Russian.
• This second sentence: ”He was born in 1864 and, lived in Germany.” That’s a comma after “and,” not a typo. I’m severely crotchety about students’ promiscuous dropping of commas before all quotations, as in, say, “I went to the, ‘zoo.’” Somehow this bad habit has become a routine tic in student writing. But the gratuitous, distracting, erroneous comma in the student’s rundown on Weber is a new one on me.
• Two sentences down, the student lower-cases “protestant.”
• Further: “He also argued that societies were becoming rationalized in the sense that rationalization of society is the transition from a society dominated by tradition to one dominated by rationality.”
And so on. That’s the worst of it, to be fair. Now that all the children are above-average (or to put it as Garrison Keillor didn’t, A’s are now the most common grades given by American colleges), the news could have been even more disturbing. Still, a 7.2 on a 9-point scale sounds like something in the B range. Colleagues, do you want to herald this work with a B and pass this student on to the next hapless professor—or, as it turns out, machine?
Insert rant here about standards going to the dogs. I’m glad the Chronicle is paying attention. Anyone else?