BRENTWOOD -- Teacher Jill Shodeen has the dream assistant -- smart, fast and popular with students and parents alike.
"Amazing" is how Bristow Middle School seventh-grader Jeffrey Wexler describes the classroom aide his language arts teacher introduced this year to help youngsters with their writing.
Meet Pearson EssayScorer, a Web-based software program that corrects and grades papers in the time it takes to tap the Enter key on a computer.
Although the technology is nothing new -- so-called "robo-readers" have been around for well over a decade and Antioch Unified along with three other far East County school districts have been using them most of that time -- this is the first year that Bristow and Brentwood Union School District's other two middle schools have been using it.
Shodeen introduced automated essay scoring to her school after discovering its capabilities, not the least of which is streamlining classwork.
After logging onto a website, students type their essays and in seconds receive a comprehensive analysis of their efforts.
The technology evaluates writing samples in six areas, rating them on a scale of 1 to 6: In addition to reviewing spelling, punctuation and grammar, it scores students on how well they organized their thoughts, whether and how fully they addressed the assigned topic, and the breadth of their vocabulary.
The software also assesses sentence structure -- it looks for how fluently sentences flow -- as well as the appropriateness of their writing style if they're supposed to be addressing a specific age group.
This artificial intelligence includes a human component, which involves collecting approximately 200 essays on a particular topic from students around the country.
Two people read and score each one and those results are entered into a computer; the system then refers to that benchmark data to come up with a grade when analyzing the essays that end-users submit.
The robo-reader gives Shodeen's students three tries to refine their work, which it critiques not only by flagging misspellings and grammatical goofs, but by offering pointers on how to strengthen a supporting argument or narrow down a main idea.
Jennevieve Walton, 12, says the essay scorer is akin to having another set of eyeballs, noting that it has highlighted run-on sentences and capitalization errors in her copy.
"It makes it way easier (to catch) mistakes you wouldn't have seen if you were writing it out by yourself," she said.
Wexler has hadthe computer remind him to indent new paragraphs and delete duplicate sentences.
The system isn't perfect, however: It often fails to recognize cases in which students have confused homonyms and marks proper names as misspellings, Shodeen said.
On the other hand, it's saving her a significant amount of time.
Until the start of this school year she had been teaching fifth grade, which meant she spent the entire day with the same group of children. As such, when Shodeen gave them a writing assignment, she had about 30 papers to grade.
As a seventh-grade teacher, however, she has half a dozen classes and 181 students.
Shodeen already spends at least six hours correcting papers for every essay students write by hand; she's forced to take the conventional route most of the time because the robo-reader only can score submissions that are on topics the manufacturer has prescribed and the majority of those don't have any bearing on the books her students are reading.
But the one time a month that she can use the automated reader, it frees up a good chunk of time.
"It gives me more of my home life (back) because all of those essays go home to be graded," Shodeen said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.