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TESTY OVER TESTS


Madeleine Begun Kane
 
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Now that school's back in session, people are obsessing and fretting about tests. Newsweek even devoted a large chunk of a recent issue to "The Truth About Testing." But while Newsweek focused on pre-college tests and the SAT, it's the GMAT that's really driving me "Mad." Or at least it would be, if I were hoping to earn an MBA.

Not that I was planning to, mind you. Law school was more than enough punishment for one lifetime, thank you very much.

Still, if I had any such aspirations, they would have been destroyed by the latest testing methods used by the Graduate Management Admission Council which sponsors the GMAT.

What could make an already scary test even scarier? GMAT essay-grading duties are now being shared with a computer -- an electronic reader dubbed the "E-rater" and developed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, New Jersey.

Its proponents assure us that the E-rater has been "trained" to evaluate spelling, grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary, and logic. Moreover, it (I hope it will forgive me for calling it an it) has a fondness for transitional words like "moreover, "therefore," "finally" and "thus." Thus and therefore, the E-rater might actually applaud this paragraph.

What does all this mean for a would-be MBA? Besides the fact that your entire future is in the "hands" of a machine? And that your therapy sessions will soon switch focus from blaming mom to castigating the #$!&@# GMAT computer that ruined your life?

Perhaps I'm not being fair. After all, we're told that essays will be assessed on a zero to six-point basis by one professor and one computer. If the initial scores are more than a point apart, a second human will evaluate the essays, and any lingering disagreement will be resolved by a (presumably human) referee.

Despite this built-in human checks and balances, the thought of essays being evaluated by a machine terrifies me. I used to practice law (I never did get it right) and it took me and my writing many years to recover from the stultifying prose imposed by law professors, legal employers, and US Courts. (My very use of the word "stultifying" proves I'm not quite there yet.)

So I can't help wondering if my writing -- or anyone's writing -- could survive the act of trying to please and impress a machine.

As it is, I still can't get used to the dastardly spell/grammar-check program assaults that emanate from my word processing program:

* Lambasting my precious sentence fragments.

* Demanding to know why I've used yet another forbidden contraction.

* And protesting when I repeat words back to back and begin sentences with "and."

* Or "or."

More than three hundred years ago when the concept of computers was unthinkable, French Philosopher Renee Descartes wrote: "I think, therefore I am." Can the same be said for the E-rater?

At least Descartes would get brownie points for his "therefore."


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