Translation Industry News | 01.12.2009

Computerised marking scheme scores nul points with education professionals

Automatic language tools are always a hot topic and when news broke of an automatic marking system for English examinations, the debate was open for discussion once more.

We are referring to the recent launch of the Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic), which is to be used by English-speaking educational establishments and companies to assess a person’s level of English. ‘This innovative computer-based test is designed to give schools and employers a lot more to go on a lot more quickly when they’re trying to decide whether a candidate is ready to learn in English or work in English’ stated Marjorie Scardino, chief executive officer of Pearson plc. However, speed is not always of the essence and does not necessarily mean quality – especially when it comes to language matters. Professionals in the field are rightly concerned. They fear that the introduction of such marking schemes could spell the end for human assessors of GCSEs and A levels.

Automatic marking is no stranger to the UK. Certain examinations are already performed on computers and marked electronically, but these follow the multiple choice format when only one correct answer is available. However, when tests were carried out on the automated system, renowned authors such as Ernest Hemmingway were deemed ‘less than average’ and other well-known works failed the specific ‘marking’ criteria. It would seem that there is certainly room for improvement in the programme.

A popular choice on A level English curriculums has been the play Translations by Brian Friel and this is also currently recommended for study on the Cambridge Pre-U syllabus which is set by the University of Cambridge International Examinations (the world’s ‘largest provider of international qualifications for 14–19 year olds’.) One of the play’s major themes is language and communication and it is predominantly written in English but with ample Gaelic, Greek and Latin references. This has led people to question whether a computerised marking tool would be able to cope with a variety of languages in a single text and has raised issues such as the need for specialised terminology add-ons for certain works, the potential cost increases this would entail and furthermore, whether students would be deprived of studying certain texts if the necessary marking tools proved too expensive.

In America, an interesting situation has developed with similar marking schemes, whereby innovative students have been learning the computer’s ‘language’ in order to obtain higher grades – behaviour which has been dubbed as ‘schmoozing’. Pearson plc expressed the wish for their system to enable both sets of users to ‘realise their goals – and help the world become a little closer in the bargain.’ However, it seems that the only rapprochement to date has been between people and computers.

There do not appear to be many professionals in favour of such an automated marking system, and in the UK it is understandable that concerns have been voiced about its potential use in English GCSEs and A levels. The fate of metaphors, similes, cultural references, poetry and even Latin quotations, say, could possibly be at the mercy of a machine. If students are required to discuss the intricacies of any language or comment on literary works, the least they deserve is a human audience. ‘All writing is creative, to one extent or another’ says Fay Weldon CBE, novelist and chair of creative writing at Brunel University. The day when the mark of approval is stamped by artificial intelligence will be a blow for creativity, regardless of the language involved.

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