RI Commissioner Wagner Stands Firm on Automated Scoring for the PARCC

Sheila Resseger, a retired teacher, education activist, and  a member of the PCSP, wrote the post below.  Her new blog is at https://resseger.wordpress.com/

On  April 5,  the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, FairTest, Network for Public Education and other parent and teacher activists sent a letter to the State Education Commissioners from the PARCC and SBAC states.  I signed the letter as well.  We demanded these Commissioners inform us as to whether they plan to use computer scoring for the writing sections of these exams.

As research has shown, computers are unable to distinguish nonsense from coherent prose, and instead grade mostly on an essay’s length and how much arcane vocabulary is used.  Employing computers to score the Common Core exams is completely contrary to the supposed goal of these standards: to encourage critical thinking and writing skills; an article about this issue is here.

Later that day, Rhode Island Commissioner Ken Wagner met with our Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.  He was enthusiastic about the prospect of computer scoring of the PARCC constructed responses, and made many astonishing claims, including that research showed that computers scored writing as well or better than expert trained teachers.

(You can see the video, watch from about 11 minutes.)

He also falsely claimed that the SAT and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) used computer scoring. Yet on the GRE, every writing sample is scored by both a computer and a human being, and the College Board uses only human scorers on the SAT.

On May 17, 2016 the RI Board of Education met. Only two people commented during the Open Forum part of the meeting. A retired Providence high school English teacher spoke about her disapproval of the proposed revised regulations for high school graduation, with several diplomas offered of differing value, which would be discriminatory.  I spoke to critique Wagner’s enthusiastic endorsement of automated scoring of the PARCC constructed responses:

At the April 5, 2016 meeting of the RI Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, Commissioner Wagner was enthusiastic about the prospect of computer scoring of the PARCC constructed responses. However, he did not inform the Council of serious misgivings about computer scoring that many knowledgeable people have expressed.

The group Student Privacy Matters [Parent Coalition for Student Privacy] included the following information in an issue brief regarding automated scoring on April 5 under the title,

“Too Many Unanswered Questions about Machine Scoring of the Common Core Exams”

“… wasn’t the Common Core supposed to encourage creativity and critical thinking? And the Common Core aligned exams supposed to assess these skills? Is there any evidence that machines can do either? As far as one can determine, the answer is no.

“Last year, Les Perelman, who was in charge of MIT’s Writing program,wrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe. Perelman tested out another automated scoring system, IntelliMetric, that could not distinguish essays with meaningful coherent prose from nonsense, and that [gave] high marks to gibberish, such as this:

“’According to professor of theory of knowledge Leon Trotsky, privacy is the most fundamental report of humankind. Radiation on advocates to an orator transmits gamma rays of parsimony to implode.’

“Unable to analyze meaning, narrative, or argument, automated scoring instead relies on length, grammar, and measures of abstruse vocabulary to do [sic] assess prose.”

On a related matter, Commissioner Wagner insisted that it’s necessary to get all schools to use the online version, rather than the paper and pencil version of the PARCC, as soon as possible. He claimed that this is important not only for the testing, but also for an underlying instructional purpose. He said,

“We can’t think about student engagement unless we have a serious strategy around digital learning.”  This does not match my understanding of the phrase student engagement. Thank you.

The format of the Board meetings does not allow for questioning or discussion of the comments from the public. However, later during the meeting, one of the board members asked:

“Can members follow up on public comments, and have a discussion about them? “The answer was that an agenda item can be added during a meeting if the Board votes to do so. No agenda item was added.

The Chair of the Board made a brief comment in answer to the member’s question, and then Wagner spoke up. He explained that there would be a discussion of the proposed graduation requirements later on the agenda. As for my comments about automated scoring, he stated that he stands by his previous comments, notwithstanding the information by the person who was quoted (i.e. Les Perelman).

Wagner continued to insist, as he did in the previous public meeting, that teachers have complained about the time taken out of their classrooms, robbing students of instruction, to SCORE the state assessments! This was one of his rationales for using computer scoring, along with efficiency (shorter wait time for the scores and less money)! Yet neither the PARCC nor the SBAC exam have ever pulled teachers out of the classroom to score; nor in my memory has this been an issue in Rhode Island, so his rationale is completely irrelevant.

Wagner did admit that he misspoke in his April 5 remarks when he claimed that the SAT and GRE have used automated scoring for some time. Apparently he didn’t bother to fact-check before making that comment.

So once again Commissioner Wagner stands firm on espousing the misguided tenets of the corporate education reform that is ruining public education for students, teachers, families, and public schools. Once again he dismisses authentic research by actual experts and refuses to acknowledge that there are legitimate counter-arguments to his positions. Unfortunately, most of the members of the RI Board of Education did not call him out on his careless and false claims.

At least one Board member at this meeting had the initiative to call for more discussion of comments made by members of the public. However, it is doubtful that this will be enough to derail the direction that the RI Strategic Plan for Public Education, the Commissioner, and the Rhode Island Department of Education are taking our state. It is up to those of us who recognize the depth of the damage that is happening under the radar of the general public to speak up and expose the insidious agenda of corporate technocrats like Commissioner Wagner, who argues that online learning is necessary to “engage” students and that machines can do a better job than expert teachers in assessing critical thought.