The English portion of our curriculum is pretty rigorous. It requires a lot of reading, some grammar, and anywhere from 4 to 7 essays, depending on the level. The essay topics are explained in detail, students are given the chance to do pre-writing (they rarely do), and the essays are graded in less than 15 seconds by artificial intelligence.
I'm fascinated by the whole artificial intelligence thing. [Insert joke about many of my students here.] I was concerned at first that the computer program would grade too leniently, but it actually grades much harder than I think I would. Of course, it doesn't have the advantage of knowing the students' abilities, their future plans, and their previous successes (or lack thereof). Perhaps it would be better if I didn't know those things either.
One thing that dismays me (is that a verb?) about the program is that it grades heavily on word count. The essays are required to be at least 300 words in length, and an essay of 400 words that are not as well organized as 307 words will receive a higher grade. Luckily, I have the power to go in and change the grades as I see fit. This usually happens only when a student who actually CARES about his or her grade receives something like a 72 on an essay that he or she spent countless minutes ... 20 maybe ... writing. Sometimes I agree with the computer's grade; sometimes I don't. I will only change the grade UP. If I think the essay needs some work, I point out to the student where he or she could gain some extra points and recommend editing.
Some students just want to be DONE with the essays, and they are more than willing to accept failing grades for them. That is not an option. Before I will mark their courses "complete," they must have received a 70% average over all the essays. This way they may get away with one failing grade on an essay, but the rest must be above average. I realize not all of them are stellar writers, but there is always room for improvement. Even if they don't give two rats' fannies about Ralph Waldo Emerson's attitude toward nature in an essay brilliantly entitled "Nature." (Really? That's the best you could do, Ralph? Or do you go by Waldo, and that's why you wrote that stuff in the first place?)
Another thing I like about this magical program is that it is (in some cases) smarter than the students think it is. One of my students, a young man who will probably never be required to write another essay in his life, finished the course last week and said the computer had given him a zero for one of his essays because it was "too off topic." That happens occasionally, and if I think the student has approached the topic and written a decent enough essay, I will award a grade accordingly. It requires that I go into his course and look at the essays individually, and I don't mind doing so.
When I checked this young man's essay in question, I knew we were in trouble as soon as I came across the word "ethical." (See what I mean about irony?) Picture this student, a young man who will go to his grave insisting it is his constitutional right to carry smokeless tobacco in his back pocket at school and would rather be driving a tractor than writing an essay. Here is the first part of his essay. The topic was to write about how sometimes bad things can lead to good.
Long ago, I realized that having some sort of ethical system requried that one sort every possible thing in the world into the approved of and the not approved of, or the desired and not desired, or the good and the evil. Having been able to pick a particular moral scheme myself, and not having missed out on the childhood directioning lessons.
They are always amazed at how quickly I can find the same essays on the internet that it took them 15 minutes to copy and paste. We have actually suspended students for this infraction, but that would be a reward for this student. Besides, he is so close to being finished that it would be meaningless to suspend him. I did, however, share it with my principal, and she's the one who pointed out the irony in his writing.
At least now I have a real-life example I can use the next time one of my students asks, "What is irony?"