THE UK's second largest exam board is to start trials of a computerised system which marks essays without a human examiner.
Developers preparing the system for a dummy trial by Edexcel on GCSE-style scripts next year believe it is accurate and economical. But authors, academics and teachers have attacked the idea, fearing it will be unable to appreciate sophisticated essays.
The Pearson Knowledge Technologies system rates essays for content, syntax, style and spelling, without human help. It is already used in several parts of the United States, where it has attracted a lot of controversy.
Critics say it deals poorly with metaphors and reads for vocabulary rather than meaning. The sentence "the cat ate the pin cushion," for example, could score the same as, "the pin cushion ate the cat".
John Mortimer, the playwright and Rumpole author called the concept "lunacy". He said:"How can a computer listen to the sound of words? How can it decide whether ideas are original or not?"
But Jerry Jarvis, managing director of Edexcel, said he had been astounded by the software's accuracy. "You start off sceptical, but after a while you realise there's something in it," he said. "The makers believe it is more accurate than human beings."
While he conceded that Britain was not yet ready for e-marking of GCSE and A-level essays, he plans to hold the first UK trials of the software next year. Edexcel's human examiners already do more than 70 per cent of their marking on computer screens.
Mr Jarvis said: "There is a lot of potential scepticism. But I believe I'm doing the best for students. Others will disagree."
Geoff Barton, a fellow of the English Association and head of King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, said the system might liberate human markers to focus on finer qualities of writing while the computers dealt with common spelling and grammar.
But Michael Morpurgo, the award-winning children's author, said the software was a symptom of how "depersonalised" education had become. "If teachers feel their expertise can be summed up by a machine, what does that say about them? It's productivity-driven and it demeans the subject," he said.
John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, feared the move represented a money-saving exercise fuelled by a shortage of examiners.
Most large boards mark multiple-choice papers by computer. But, until recently, it was thought impossible to computer-mark essays. Examiners complain it could encourage simple questions. Multiple choice has been introduced by stealth because it is easier and cheaper, critics allege.
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