educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

TAs are richer than college presidents: Standardized tests are destroying education, part 5 (of 874)

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What does it mean to write well? That the writing is clear? Eloquent? Powerful? Emotion-inducing? Connected? Ah, but there we get into it: Your writing’s value is connected, linked, intertwined with an audience. A reader. Someone who might think about what you’re saying. Someone who might, of all things, care.

But the barn door is open and the horses are gone. For some time, writing has been passed under the electronic gaze of a machine. Machine grading is happening and ever-present.

Of course the standardized test mass production education=widget industry supports robograding.  But in higher ed, despite resistors and truth-tellers like John Warner, some educators even defend machine grading as a way to make writing itself easier to grade and evaluate. It’s a way to help our students learn, they say. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to use writing in their courses, because although writing is a key to learning, they say it is too complicated and time-consuming to teach. (One might see a paradox when these complaints come from high-priced institutions where one might think teachers would feel obligated to do anything to help their students learn more effectively. Find the time.)

But what does it take to write a good essay for a machine? Les Perelman, a writing program director at MIT, has gamed these robograder systems for some time. For this essay, which is described well by a Thephrastus on this blog, Perelman received a high score from the Educational Testing Service’s e-Rater. Perelman’s effort is so masterful that below, for your pleasure (you are, after all, my audience), I reproduce the prompt and essay in full:

 Question: “The rising cost of a college education is the fault of students who demand that colleges offer students luxuries unheard of by earlier generations of college students — single dorm rooms, private bathrooms, gourmet meals, etc.”

 Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with this opinion. Support your views with specific reasons and examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.

In today’s society, college is ambiguous. We need it to live, but we also need it to love. Moreover, without college most of the world’s learning would be egregious. College, however, has myriad costs. One of the most important issues facing the world is how to reduce college costs. Some have argued that college costs are due to the luxuries students now expect. Others have argued that the costs are a result of athletics. In reality, high college costs are the result of excessive pay for teaching assistants.

I live in a luxury dorm. In reality, it costs no more than rat infested rooms at a Motel Six. The best minds of my generation were destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, and publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull. Luxury dorms pay for themselves because they generate thousand and thousands of dollars of revenue. In the Middle Ages, the University of Paris grew because it provided comfortable accommodations for each of its students, large rooms with servants and legs of mutton. Although they are expensive, these rooms are necessary to learning. The second reason for the five-paragraph theme is that it makes you focus on a single topic. Some people start writing on the usual topic, like TV commercials, and they wind up all over the place, talking about where TV came from or capitalism or health foods or whatever. But with only five paragraphs and one topic you’re not tempted to get beyond your original idea, like commercials are a good source of information about products. You give your three examples, and zap! you’re done. This is another way the five-paragraph theme keeps you from thinking too much.

Teaching assistants are paid an excessive amount of money. The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents. In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, a staring roles in motion pictures. Moreover, in the Dickens novel Great Expectation, Pip makes his fortune by being a teaching assistant. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, since there are three parts to everything you can think of. If you can’t think of more than two, you just have to think harder or come up with something that might fit. An example will often work, like the three causes of the Civil War or abortion or reasons why the ridiculous twenty-one-year-old limit for drinking alcohol should be abolished. A worse problem is when you wind up with more than three subtopics, since sometimes you want to talk about all of them.

There are three main reasons while Teaching Assistants receive such high remuneration. First, they have the most powerful union in the United States. Their union is greater than the Teamsters or Freemasons, although it is slightly smaller than the international secret society of the Jedi Knights. Second, most teaching assistants have political connections, from being children of judges and governors to being the brothers and sisters of kings and princes. In Heart of Darkness, Mr. Kurtz is a teaching assistant because of his connections, and he ruins all the universities that employ him. Finally, teaching assistants are able to exercise mind control over the rest of the university community. The last reason to write this way is the most important. Once you have it down, you can use it for practically anything. Does God exist? Well, you can say yes and give three reasons, or no and give three different reasons. It doesn’t really matter. You’re sure to get a good grade whatever you pick to put into the formula. And that’s the real reason for education, to get those good grades without thinking too much and using up too much time.

In conclusion, as Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” Luxury dorms are not the problem. The problem is greedy teaching assistants. It gives me an organizational scheme that looks like an essay, it limits my focus to one topic and three subtopics so I don’t wander about thinking irrelevant thoughts, and it will be useful for whatever writing I do in any subject. I don’t know why some teachers seem to dislike it so much. They must have a different idea about education than I do. By Les Perelman

You need an argument about college costs?: “The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents.” There you have it. And with a brilliant essay like this, you increase your chances of getting in elite colleges like Elite Zenith University, which love students who get high scores on their standardized tests.

So there you have it. Go forth and write, my friends — even if you won’t need real friends to write.

If you are skeptical about the idea that teaching assistants make six times as much as college presidents, you might check out this online petition: Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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5 Responses to “TAs are richer than college presidents: Standardized tests are destroying education, part 5 (of 874)”

  1. That. Is horrifying.

  2. Alas, my application for demotion to teaching assistant was turned down, so I struggle along at my current salary… At least students are mostly hip to what’s happening here. Many say, basically, this:

    “I was told I had to use exact quotes — I couldn’t remember any, so I made them up. And I got a high score. That’s when I realized that they meant it was important to use quotes, but it didn’t matter what was in them.”

    And these are tests graded by human grading machines. The students, at least, report this with a sense of irony, so there’s hope.

  3. Great piece, Scott. I’ve followed Les’ take down of the software solutions, but hadn’t seen the entire essay. Makes me sentimental for my days as a TA, when I could afford a Mercedes and take frequent holidays in the Caribbean.

    I’m just leaving a large, respectable state university that has licensed auto-grading software to “solve that writing problem.” It will take 10 years for employers to howl and the feedback loop to close, forcing change. Ironic that k12 is just now pulling out of its NCLB nose-dive in favor of more challenging written exams that are graded by hand.

  4. I want to punch you in the face.

  5. Now that is some fine writing. It uses beautiful language, correct spelling and punctuation, evokes emotion… Probably not the emotion preferred but it’s impressive in it’s scariness.

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