Green Squiggly Lines:

Writing Assessment in Computer-Mediated Composition

While the possibility-or threat-of using the computer to grade student essays was first suggested by Ellis Page in 1968, the computer-graded essay has been a promise that has failed to materialize. The College Board's development of WriterPlacer Plus and Thomas Landauer's work on latent semantic analysis programs have brought us closer to the computer-graded essay-as Ann Herrington and Charles Moran point out in the March 2001 issue of College English. However, as Herrington and Moran note, the companies marketing these products have had a hard time selling them to English faculty. We remain skeptical about the computer's ability to "read" student essays. In fact, Herrington and Moran's article reveals the same skepticism and the same rhetorical moves to justify that skepticism that Finn articulated in the 1970s and Sirc amplified in the 1980s. Finn's and Sirc's rhetorical moves demonstrate an issue that has circulated among the teaching of writing, computer-mediated communication, and the assessment of student essays since at least the late 1970s: Computer-and-composition specialists-for all of our enthusiasm for technology-often distinguish ourselves from educational technologists, who would mechanize the evaluation of writing as much as possible.

Finn (1977) sets his work up as distinctive from the work-and the interests-of educational technologists and some teachers who believe computers "will replace human evaluators" (p. 69). When these readers see "that what is being suggested will not replace human raters (thereby relieving them of an onerous task), they stop reading and are disappointed" (p. 69). Sirc (1989) also marks his work as a teacher-researcher as distinctive from the work of educational technologists who are interested in having computers talk "directly to students"; Sirc's concerns with the classroom and with pedagogy take center stage as he elaborates how the computer can work as a medium for response and as a tool for encouraging revision. There is nothing mechanical or automatic about the computer in Sirc's vision-in fact, the computer moves away from being a tool for assessment and becomes a medium for response.