TO: Paolo DeMaria
Superintendent of Public Instruction
Ohio Department of Education
CC: Office of Curriculum and Assessment:
FROM: English teachers of Shaker Heights High School
September 7, 2018
Dear Superintendent DeMaria and the Office of Curriculum and Assessment,
We are English teachers at Shaker Heights High School, and we would like to voice our profound dismay over the direction that the Ohio Department of Education has taken with the End of Course exams.
In the nation’s unthinking rush to test, test, test, we have reached a new low: We are now expected to teach our students how to write for a machine to read.
We have been given a document called, “Machine-Scored Grading: Initial Suggestions for Preparing Students,” produced by the Westerville City Schools “in consultation with the ODE.” According to these guidelines, “When composing text to be read by a computer, the writer cannot assume that the machine will ‘know’ and be able to interpret communicative intent.”
Imagine for a moment how humiliating it is for students to hear that what they write will be read by a machine, not by a human. Can you think of anything as pointless? Would anybody be inspired to do their best work?
The message that we send students is this: Your inner self, the ground from which all writing springs, has no value, no relevance. We do not care about the content of your mind, only that you have the mental machinery to decipher and generate informational text.
Writing for a computer is antithetical to everything that led us to become educators. Our overseers in Columbus, however, have a very different attitude. In support of machine scoring, this is from an official statement from an Associate Director of the Office of Curriculum and Assessment:
“This is the only way to get to adaptive testing and to return results faster, with the goal to be eventual on demand results, which has been an extremely vocal issue by the field to legislators, ODE Leadership, etc.”
First of all, this is an appalling sentence. But once we get past the errors in syntax, grammar and capitalization, and the sloppy, confusing phrasing, we are still left with an absurdity. We teachers are supposed to set students before a computer and then wait breathlessly for the machine to tell us how well or poorly the student writes? That is the ultimate goal? And the person in charge doesn’t even know how to write? How much are Ohio taxpayers spending on this?
There are always the same three justifications for computer grading:
- It’s fast.
- It’s cheap.
- It’s objective.
But we can point to a system that is faster, cheaper, and maybe even more objective. There just happens to be a group of trained professionals handy: people who are dedicated to the wellbeing and growth of Ohio’s schoolchildren, people who love writing and literature, people who are trained to the standards of the Ohio Department of Education, people who continually strive to improve their ability to provide meaningful evaluation of student writing:
We can do the job fast because we’re with the students every day. We can do it cheap, in fact at no extra cost to Ohio taxpayers, because it’s what we’re paid to do anyway.
You might assume that machines have us beat when it comes to objectivity. But computers are only as objective as the humans who program them. And we have good reason to distrust multinational corporations when they invoke proprietary trade secrets to hide the systems that determine the fates of millions of public school children.
But objectivity may be the wrong criterion. As English teachers, we love writing because it is one of the most subjective things taught in school. We love the teaching of writing because we love to see students develop their unique voices, their sense of themselves as the subjects of their own lives.
If we begin our thinking with the assumption that standardized tests are a sacred imperative, then, surely the fastest, cheapest, most objective thing is to grade them is with a machine. However, if we begin our thinking with the belief that students should learn how to write well, then we see that artificial intelligence is not just irrelevant, but counterproductive.
Superintendent DeMaria, what is truly being tested here is the ODE itself. Are you so captive to the testing-industrial complex that you throw millions of taxpayer dollars into an unnecessary technology? Or are you so committed to educating students that you are willing to use your available human capital to do it for free?
English teachers at Shaker Heights High School