Education ministers have quietly ditched plans for so-called “robot marking” of student essays in the Australia-wide NAPLAN testing program, conceding parents were unconvinced about the idea.
A push by the curriculum authority – stridently opposed by teachers’ unions – would have deployed computers to grade writing assessments as part of the standardised tests sat by students every two years.
The trial was to begin this year, as part of an ongoing plan to shift the NAPLAN tests entirely online. It was backed by federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who cited research showing there was no difference between computer marking and human marking.
But state and territory education ministers, led by NSW, Victoria and Queensland, dumped the proposal at a meeting in December. No communique was released at the time and the decision was quietly announced online on the eve of the Australia Day long weekend.
“The Education Council determined that automated essay scoring will not be used for the marking of NAPLAN writing scripts,” said council chair Susan Close, South Australia’s Education Minister. But she left the door open to reversing course again, stating: “Any change to this position in the future will be informed by further research into automated essay scoring.”
Senator Birmingham, who ceded to resistance from the eastern states at the December meeting, maintained the evidence supported computerised-marking of essays, but admitted parents were still sceptical.
“It’s clear more work would need to be done to reassure families about its value,” he said. Other elements of the literacy and numeracy tests have already moved online and will continue to do so.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has researched automated essay marking since 2012, and argued it was necessary for Australia to keep pace with the rest of the world, while delivering faster feedback to students, parents and teachers.
In a statement noting the Education Council’s decision, ACARA acknowledged concerns about automated essay scoring but said it remained a viable option.
The backflip is a win for teachers’ unions, who campaigned fiercely against computer marking and questioned schools’ readiness for online testing.
“Our students write for an audience and with purpose, and they deserve to have their written work reviewed and assessed by human markers, not by computers,” Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe said on Monday.
NSW Teachers’ Federation boss Maurie Mulheron dismissed the advice from ACARA as “poor” and said the idea that robots can mark writing should be taken “off the table for good”.
“We’ll be monitoring it to make sure it doesn’t come back,” he said. He asserted the government had come under pressure from edutech businesses to adopt their technologies.
The union last year commissioned a report from retired US professor Les Perelman who declared it would be “extremely foolish” to rely on computers, which would reward “verbose gibberish” in essays.
NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes, who sits on the Education Council and was a vocal opponent of the plan, welcomed the outcome and reiterated the system had “no place” in his state’s schools.
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino, also on the council, said every state and territory had concerns about automated essay marking.
“We have always said that until the outcomes of research into this issue is clearer, we will continue to have all student writing marked by people,” he said.