When I first heard that computer programs were evaluating writing for standardized assessments I found it hard to believe. How can a computer appreciate tone of voice, humor, insight, and the scores of other non-quantitative elements that comprise good writing? Shouldn’t style, flow, and readability be considered when evaluating writing?
Of course they should! However, the current emphasis on standardized testing and push toward electronic evaluation of writing within the educational system is propelling students in the wrong direction. As Anne Herrington and Charles Moran point out in “Evolving Technologies and Assessment,” while “current technologies create new possibilities for writing, educational publishing companies are using technology to teach a reductive construction of writing” (11). They are referring to automated scoring programs produced by companies like McGraw-Hill and ETS that purport to evaluate students’ work by comparing it to a bank of approved texts. Herrington and Moran found that Criterion, produced by ETS identified “not depth and complexity, but length; number, but not quality of examples” (12). If students believe that scoring higher on these programs will lead to improving their writing, then they will begin to write for the program rather than themselves, their teacher, or another distinct audience. This mindset reduces writing to a formulaic pursuit that is of the same ilk as the Jane Schaffer model. In an era where the boundaries of writing are expanding and blending with other media and promoting high levels of creativity and ingenuity, the last thing we need to do is take away the artistic expression inherent in the craft and replace it with a rubric that allows for easy quantification and tabulation.
If we as a society really value the ability to write well as much as we seem to, then we ought to encourage students to be creative and have fun with it. Cultivate and develop the new opportunities that are possible with the internet. Allow writing to be an art that comes from within instead of trying to confine it with measurements and calculations.