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Machine Reading of Student Writing

Written by Anne Herrington & Charlie Moran
September 24, 2010

“Writing to a Machine is Not Writing At All” is an essay written by Anne Herrington and Charlie Moran, to be published in a volume honoring Ed White, who was a pioneer in the field of writing assessment. Edited by Norbert Elliot and Les Perelman, the book will be published by Hampton Press in 2011 as Writing Assessment in the 21st Century.

In this piece, Herrington and Moran demonstrate that computer-scoring of student writing is being actively marketed to colleges, K-12 schools, and even to college bookstores as a ‘reader’ of student writing, one that is allegedly able to give accurate and useful feedback. They then submit their own essay to Criterion, a machine-reading service marketed by ETS, and find that the feedback offered by the program is misleading and most often dead wrong.

The authors allow that mass testing may be an acceptable use of the technology, but they make it clear that the use of programs like this for classroom instruction, or, worse still, in lieu of classroom instruction, is not acceptable. Not only do the programs give inaccurate and misleading feedback; they present the student writer with an a-rhetorical writing situation—writing for display—not writing to other human beings for human purposes. The authors’ title is adapted from an early essay by Ed White, “Writing to Nobody is Not Writing At All.”

PDF of Herrington and Moran’s essay

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