NAPLAN: Education chief defends computers over teachers marking creative writing

NAPLAN tests could be taken on tablets and marked on computers by 2017.
NAPLAN tests could be taken on tablets and marked on computers by 2017.  Photo: James Brickwood

Teachers are being told that the only way to get a fast turnaround of NAPLAN results is to use computers to mark the creative writing component of the exam. 

NAPLAN's chief administrator Dr Stanley Rabinowitz​ has hit back at teachers vowing to fight any move to get computers to mark the creative writing. 

Say goodbye to paper for NAPLAN from 2017
Say goodbye to paper for NAPLAN from 2017 Photo: Graham Tidy

On Tuesday Dr Rabinowitz from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) revealed that computers would mark the creative writing of a million Australian students in year 3,5,7 and 9 from 2017 onwards. 

Under the plan the computers would be fed a thousand sample essays marked by teachers to create an algorithm that could then mark the rest of the students in the state.


Dr Rabinowitz said the artificial intelligence system would identify "sentence structure, vocabulary, grammar, right down to more mundane elements like spelling" and can perform "as well as or even better than the teachers involved". 

The NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has backed ACARA's research into automated marking. 

"If introduced, automated marking of NAPLAN writing would support faster turnaround of NAPLAN reports allowing better use of the data as a diagnostic tool for students, parents, teachers and schools," he said. 

On Thursday the Australian Education Union [AEU], continued their attack on the plans, labelling them "outrageous". 

"It will lead to a narrowing of the testing and undermining the creativity of students. It is a great concern that teachers have not been consulted about this proposal" said AEU president Correna Haythorpe. 

The criticism has been echoed by the Queensland and NSW teachers federations. 

Dr Rabinowitz said one of the issues raised by teachers and parents is that NAPLAN results are returned too late in the year to be of significant value. 

Auto-marking is central to being able to return student results within a two week period, he said. 

Under the current system schools have to wait up to five months to receive their results. 

"This is not about replacing teachers with computers, it will free up the teachers to teach," he said. 

Dr Rabinowitz found an ally in the president of the Victorian Association of the State Secondary Principals, Judy Crowe, who said the new form of assessment was a practical way to cut costs and deliver results to schools sooner. 

But other national and state teaching bodies remain unimpressed.

It is understood that the Australian Education Union was briefed on plans for computers to mark more of the mathematical components of the exam but did not find out about the controversial creative writing aspect until Dr Rabinowitz announced the plans on Tuesday. 

Dr Rabinowitz suggested Australia would be left behind if it did not push ahead with the technology.

"We are not the only ones doing this," he said. 

Studies in the United States have pointed to a system where papers that are identified as unusual or creative by the computer will be redirected to be marked by human eyes. Five to 10 per cent of papers would also continue to be double marked by teachers to guarantee the program remains on track. 

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