BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Computer scientists in the University at
Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have been
working with their colleagues in UB's Graduate School of Education
to develop a computational tool that not only dramatically reduces
the time it takes to grade children's handwritten essays, but that
also may help boost students' reading comprehension skills.
The software has special relevance to the school systems and
teachers involved in administering the standardized English
Language Arts exams that are given every year, usually in January,
by public school systems in every state. This month, every New York
school district will administer these assessments to their students
in grades three to eight.
The National Science Foundation recently awarded the UB
researchers a $100,000 grant to develop new algorithms that could
eventually allow computers to take over the grading of children's
The UB team's preliminary results with the software are
scheduled for publication in the February/March issue of Artificial
Intelligence. The paper was published earlier in the online version
of the journal.
"It surprised us that we were able to do as well as we did,
especially since this was our first attempt," said Sargur N.
Srihari, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department
of Computer Science and Engineering and principal investigator on
The project focused on handwritten essays obtained from eighth
graders in the Buffalo Public Schools who responded to this
question from a New York State English Language Arts exam: "How was
Martha Washington's role as First Lady different from that of
Three hundred of the essays were scored by human examiners and
used as a "gold standard" against which 96 computer-scored essays
Essays were graded on a scale of 0-6, with six being the highest
In 70 percent of cases, the UB researchers reported, the
computer program graded the essays within one point of those
assigned by human examiners.
The UB research tackles two significant artificial intelligence
problems, said Srihari, director of UB's Center of Excellence in
Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR), the world's largest
research center devoted to developing new technologies that can
recognize and read handwriting.
"We wanted to see whether automated handwriting recognition
capabilities can be used to read children's handwriting, which is
essentially uncharted territory," he said. "Then we took it one
step further to see if we could get computers to score these essays
like human examiners."
In the pilot study, the essays were first scanned into a
computer. Each line of text was broken down into individual words.
In this step, the system's goal was word recognition, which it
accomplished using contextual information from the rest of the
sample, the answer rubric and the question.
Once the majority of words were recognized, the essay was turned
into a digital text file.
For the automated scoring step, the UB researchers used an
artificial neural network approach.
"In this method, the system 'learns' from a set of answers that
were scored already by humans, associating different values or
scores with different features in the essays," explained
Computational tools designed to evaluate essays that are typed,
not handwritten, already exist, Srihari explained.
"But these are all based on electronic text that the test-taker
types in, using a computer keyboard," he said. "In this case, we
are working toward developing a computational tool to read and
evaluate the many thousands of handwritten essays written by
schoolchildren as part of statewide mandated reading comprehension
The sheer speed with which the program works -- literally
seconds per essay -- is the most obvious advantage, the UB
Handwritten essays are an important part of every standardized
reading comprehension test given in every state. But because
grading all of those handwritten essays is such a huge task
requiring many hours of work by human examiners, students who take
the exam in January do not find out how they did until almost the
end of the spring semester.
"Judging this quantity of handwritten essays is very laborious,"
said Srihari. "It would be nice to automate this process so perhaps
students could take the test in May, having received more
instruction, and then have the results in June."
And while some teachers may be wary of computers' ability to
properly grade essays, James L. Collins, Ed.D., professor in the UB
Department of Learning and Instruction and a co-investigator, is
While he noted that human examiners might still be necessary for
grading on very specific criteria, the majority of evaluations
could probably be done just as well by computers.
"Computational linguistics has made great leaps over the past
decade and it turns out that for judging the overall quality of a
paper, computers are indeed as reliable as human graders," Collins
That's an important development, he said, because writing
practice and feedback from readers are the key aspects of learning
to write at every grade level.
"The problem is, 'How do teachers respond helpfully to all of
the writing produced by their students?'" he said. "Right now,
teachers spend a lot of time getting their students ready for these
standardized tests, then the students take the exam and get their
scores back months later. With computer scoring, students could get
back their scores much faster at a time when the results can still
be addressed. The assessment scores wouldn't just be going into a
The software program developed at UB was 'trained' to evaluate
essays based on six specific writing traits: ideas, organization,
word choice, sentence structure, voice and conventions like
spelling, usage and punctuation.
Collins said that the software now under development could be
used as an important teaching tool.
"We envision a program where a student would handwrite an essay,
scan it into the computer, which would then 'read' it and analyze
it for the specific traits we trained it to evaluate," he said.
That feedback would be available immediately to both teacher and
student as a typed essay, which has been analyzed for the six
traits, allowing for more fruitful lessons on how to edit and
revise, Collins said.
The software program also provides new opportunities for
education researchers like Collins, who is working with colleagues
at UB on a three-year, $1.5 million project called Writing
Intensive Reading Comprehension funded by the Institute of
Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. The study
involves more than 2,000 fourth and fifth graders in 10
low-performing urban schools. So far, Collins said, the results
show that students can improve their reading abilities
significantly through the use of assisted writing.
"Once a handwritten essay has been 'read' by a computer, we can
ask the computer to look for certain features of the writing so
that we can spot general patterns and discover what kids are having
trouble with," Collins continued.
Co-authors on the Artificial Intelligence paper with Srihari and
Collins are Janina Brutt-Griffler, Ed.D., associate professor in
the UB Department of Learning and Instruction; Rohini Srihari,
Ph.D., professor of computer science and engineering at UB; Harish
Srinivasan, a doctoral candidate at CEDAR, and Shravya Shetty, a
former graduate student at CEDAR, now employed by Google.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the
State University of New York. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue
their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate,
graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the
University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American