Saturday, November 14, 2009

Computerised essay marking a shambles

They are some of the most memorable and stirring words of the 20th century, but Churchill’s speech exhorting the British to “fight on the beaches” would fail if submitted as a school essay and subjected to a proposed computerised marking system. The wartime leader had a style that was too repetitive, according to the computer being tested for the online marking of school qualifications. It rated Churchill as below average in the equivalent of an A level English exam. His reference to the “might of the German army” lost him marks because the computer interpreted this as an incorrect way of writing “might have” rather than recognising “might” as an abstract noun.

Other authors, including Ernest Hemingway and William Golding, were also dismissed by the computer as not being up to standard in the American equivalent of an A-level English exam.

David Wright, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA), an umbrella body for exam boards and other organisations, said that Churchill’s speeches to the nation in 1940 had not impressed the computer. It criticised his repetition of the words “upon” and “our” and did not identify “broad, sunlit uplands” as a metaphor.

Graham Herbert, deputy head of the institute, said: “The computer was limited in its scope. It couldn’t cope with metaphor and didn’t understand the purpose of the speech. We also tried a passage from Hemingway. It couldn’t understand the fact that he had a very spartan style and [it] said he should write with more care and detail. He was also rated less than average.”

The institute tested an extract from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, using a tense part of the story that contains a paragraph of just two words: “A face.” Mr Herbert said: “We, as readers, understand the horror in that but the computer marked it as wrong because it was erratic. It also described the opening of A Clockwork Orange as bizarre.”

The potential shortcomings of such a system were pinpointed at the Westminster Education Forum yesterday. Online marking of school qualifications is being tested by British exam boards and could be introduced in the next few years.

Computers are already used to mark some multiple choice GCSE exam papers and trials are taking place with technology that could assess essay-style answers. This system is already in use in America.

The computer program has been created using a range of comments given by human markers in response to exam papers. While the program can recognise sentence structure, it is not able to understand style or purpose.

Mr Herbert said that some children in American had “cracked the code” by learning to write in a style that the computer recognised. This was called “schmoozing the computer”, he said. “At the moment we do not have a reliable and valid way of assessing English language using a software package, although this is something for which there is demand.”

One education company is preparing to start trials of marking GCSE English papers by computer, although it will not use the scripts of British children. Experts expect increasing numbers of schools to adopt online testing and marking.

Sue Kirkham, a retired head teacher, told the forum that it was unlikely that today’s primary school children would, at the age of 18, sit their A levels by handwriting on exam papers. She said a recent survey showed that schools spend more on exam-related costs than on books and equipment. Another speaker at the forum said that £750 million was spent each year on testing children in schools.

Greg Watson, chief executive of OCR, of one of the biggest exam boards in Britain, suggested after the forum that A levels had become devalued. He said: “A levels, which started pretty much as a qualification to gain university entry, have become widened to take in a broader group of students. That has compromised the ability of A levels to be the ideal entry point for university courses.”


Why does Britain spend so much money on schools?

Why do we spend so much money on schools? Like all public sectors, the education world is holding its breath to see where and when the spending axe will fall. The ubiquitous question: who will suffer when the funding tap – free flowing since the early Blair days – is squeezed? But I have a different question. Are we, in our blinkered British bubble, deluding ourselves in assuming that less money will necessarily mean a less effective education system? And the reverse applies equally. Does more money necessarily mean more learning?

My suspicion that we do overrate raw spending levels was strengthened at a recent conference in Bahrain (www.educationprojecbahrain. org), where a couple of hundred educationalists – teachers, managers, campaigners – from every corner of the globe exchanged experiences and ideas. It was an uncomfortable place to be English as the light the conference shone on our school system revealed some disturbing truths.

The message came home most pointedly in a session chaired by Ralph Tabberer, a man who knows a thing or two about the English state school system: he ran it for three years, leaving his post as the Government's Director General for Schools in 2009. He is now the chief schools officer for GEMS Education, which runs independent schools around the world, including a few in the UK.

The particular discussion centred on education funding, and the models most likely to produce value for money. The outstanding contribution, which stopped many of us in our tracks, came from Dr Taddy Blecher, a South African who has successfully launched a college for the poorest, most dispossessed teenagers living on the margins of society in Johannesburg. To an awestruck room, Blecher described how he has pulled this off with next to no funding. The unique ingredient is that students, while they're studying, work for campus-based small businesses to pay for tuition. Older students are expected to help teach younger ones, and overheads are kept to a minimum with students, for example, doing the campus cleaning and basic maintenance. This creates highly motivated students who surge ahead and gain life-changing qualifications. Summing up, Blecher made a simple observation: "Perhaps having no money helps?" His point was that motivation always trumps financial considerations.

In response, Tabberer, who was in change of a gargantuan schools budget of £34bn at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, said he found Blecher's story inspiring and fascinating in equal measure. He displayed a graph that served to underline Blecher's point. It showed the educational achievement of pupils at a Gems secondary school serving the Indian immigrant community in Dubai, where each pupil is funded, in real terms, at one-fifth the rate that the taxpayer lavishes on English state school children. But these Dubai children, who follow the English curriculum in a second language, get GCSE results that would put most state schools in England to shame. The reason? They turn up with an unquenchable thirst for learning.

Given Tabberer's recent position as a senior civil servant, he does not comment publicly on the system he left behind. But he did not really need to say anything. He had focused attention on what is the elephant in the room of English education: the fact that vast numbers of British children go through 11 years of expensive, publicly-funded education with a mindset that hovers between indifference and hostility. Result: chronic underachievement on a large scale. The money we chuck at them evaporates with hardly a brain cell stirred.

That's the problem. We have created and tolerate an atmosphere that incubates an anti-education attitude in too many young minds. The extra money poured into education for more than a decade have had little impact. We've spent zillions on new buildings, technology and qualification systems, with endless targeted initiatives, all wrapped up in the feel-good cloak of "Every Child Matters". To negligible effect. The latest example of this is truancy rates now higher than at any time since 1994, despite hundreds (yes hundreds) of millions of pounds spent on initiatives to reduce it. The message is clear. Money isn't the answer to our educational dysfunction.

So, we drastically need some new thinking and some risk-taking to shake us out of the status quo. Here is one idea from the Bahrain conference. Children should only be allowed to progress from one school year to the next if they pass a basic threshold of achievement, with only the genuinely weak protected. They do it in some countries. Here, it would cause short-term chaos as thousands of lazy and disruptive children and their families realise too late that free education comes with strings. But in the medium term it might provide a jolt to reshape a cosy mindset.


Muslims allowed to rule the roost in an Australian school

Parents say son was tormented for eating salami sandwich during Ramadan

A SYDNEY couple has withdrawn their two children from a public primary school, claiming their 11-year-old son was bullied by Muslim students because he ate a salami sandwich during Ramadan. Andrew Grigoriou said yesterday he complained to the school and to police after his son Antonios was chased and later assaulted by Muslim students after a confrontation over the contents of his lunch, The Daily Telegraph reports.

Antonios, a Year 5 student of Greek-Australian background at Punchbowl Public School in Sydney's southwest, said he and a friend had to be locked inside the library for an hour after being chased by a group of Muslim boys offended by his choice of food while they were fasting. The Grigoriou family said the following exchange took place:

Muslim student to Antonios: "Why are you eating ham, it's Ramadan?"

Antonios: "My mum packed this for lunch today."

Muslim student: "Don't eat that. How can you eat pig, it's disgusting."

During the confrontation a Muslim boy allegedly accused Antonios of saying: "F--- the Muslims" but Antonios denied swearing.

Mr Grigoriou said he removed his son and a younger child from the school on Tuesday after the boy was punched in the eye and kicked in the legs by a Muslim student. "It has broken my heart to see this happening to my boy," he said. Antonios, who wrote about his experiences in words and drawings, still has nightmares.

The Department of Education and Training said it had a zero tolerance policy [A fat lot of good a "policy" is without enforcement] towards racism. "Claims of bullying or racial intolerance are taken very seriously and looked into," a spokeswoman said. "The School Education Director is looking into the matter and called the father concerned. "As a result ... the school will work with all families and students involved to ensure that the values promoted by Punchbowl Public School and the department are understood and supported." [In other words, all talk and no action]

After the salami sandwich incident a student described as "the ringleader of the group" was suspended from the school [And was back in a few days, no doubt]. The department said that the school had "ongoing cultural and interfaith awareness programs to improve understanding among students of events like Ramadan and Christmas". Other parents also complained to The Daily Telegraph about bullying at the school and claimed victims received too little protection. One said her 12-year-old son was scared to open his lunch box at school because he was harassed about what is in it. "He has been bullied from day one ... about being a Christian and about the hot salami in his lunch," she said.

"My boy has a Greek background ... the bullying is extreme. "He has been called a fat pig and hit on the back with a stick." Another mother said her young son refused to go on school excursions for fear he would be bashed.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These are the moderates I guess? The victims would be better off at a private school anyway. Sooner or later the public ones will turn into defacto Madrasahs anyway.