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In California Classrooms, Who’s Grading the AI?

A report issued last fall mentions opportunities to use AI for tutoring, summarization and personalized content generation, but it also labels education a risky use case.

California school districts are signing more contracts for artificial intelligence tools, from automated grading in San Diego to chatbots in central California, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

English teachers say AI tools can help them grade papers faster, get students more feedback, and improve their learning experience. But guidelines are vague, and adoption by teachers and districts is spotty.

The California Department of Education can’t tell you which schools use AI or how much they pay for it. The state doesn’t track AI use by school districts, said Katherine Goyette, computer science coordinator for the California Department of Education.

While Goyette said chatbots are the most common form of AI she’s encountered in schools, more and more California teachers are using AI tools to help grade students’ work. That’s consistent with surveys that have found that teachers use AI as often if not more than students, news that contrasts sharply with headlines about fears of students cheating with AI.

Teachers use AI to do things like personalize reading material, create lesson plans and other tasks in order to save time and reduce burnout. A report issued last fall in response to an AI executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom mentions opportunities to use AI for tutoring, summarization and personalized content generation, but also labels education a risky use case. Generative AI tools have been known to create convincing but inaccurate answers to questions, and use toxic language or imagery laden with racism or sexism.

California issued guidance for how educators should use the technology last fall, one of seven states to do so. It encourages critical analysis of text and imagery created by AI models and conversations between teachers and students about what amounts to ethical or appropriate use of AI in the classroom.

But no specific mention is made of how teachers should treat AI that grades assignments. Additionally, the California education code states that guidance from the state is “merely exemplary, and that compliance with the guidelines is not mandatory.”

Goyette said she’s waiting to see whether the California Legislature passes Senate Bill 1288, which would require state Superintendent Tony Thurmond to create an AI working group to issue further guidance to local school districts on how to safely use AI. Cosponsored by Thurmond, the bill also calls for an assessment of the current state of AI in education and for the identification of forms of AI that can harm students and educators by 2026.

Nobody tracks what AI tools school districts are adopting or the policy they use to enforce standards, said Alix Gallagher, head of strategic partnerships at the Policy Analysis for California Education center at Stanford University. Since the state does not track curriculum that school districts adopt or software in use, it would be highly unusual for them to track AI contracts, she said.

Amid AI hype, Gallagher thinks people can lose sight of the fact that the technology is just a tool and it will only be as good or problematic as the decisions of the people using that tool, which is why she repeatedly urges investments in helping teachers understand AI tools and how to be thoughtful about their use.

Grading papers

Last summer, Jen Roberts, an English teacher at Point Loma High School in San Diego, went to a training session to learn how to use Writable, an AI tool that automates grading writing assignments and gives students feedback powered by OpenAI. For the past school year, Roberts used Writable and other AI tools in the classroom, and she said it’s been the best year yet of nearly three decades of teaching. Roberts said it has made her students better writers, not because AI did the writing for them, but because automated feedback can tell her students faster than she can how to improve, which in turn allows her to hand out more writing assignments.

“At this point last year, a lot of students were still struggling to write a paragraph, let alone an essay with evidence and claims and reasoning and explanation and elaboration and all of that,” Roberts said. “This year, they’re just getting there faster.”

Roberts feels Writable is “very accurate” when grading her students of average aptitude. But, she said, there’s a downside: It sometimes assigns high-performing students lower grades than merited and struggling students higher grades. She said she routinely checks answers when the AI grades assignments, but only checks the feedback it gives students occasionally.

The cost of AI in the classroom

Contracts involving artificial intelligence can be lucrative.

To launch a chatbot named Ed, the Los Angeles Unified School District signed a $6.2 million contract for two years with the option of renewing for three additional years. Magic School AI is used by educators in Los Angeles and costs $100 per teacher per year.

Despite repeated calls and emails over the span of roughly a month, Writable and the San Diego Unified School District declined to share pricing details with CalMatters. A district spokesperson said teachers got access to Writeable through a contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for English language learners.

QuillBot is an AI-powered writing tool for students in grades 4-12 made by the company Quill. Quill says its tool is currently used at 1,000 schools in California and has more than 13,000 student and educator users in San Diego alone. An annual Quill Premium subscription costs $80 per teacher or $1,800 per school.

QuillBot does not generate writing for students like ChatGPT or grade writing assignments, but gives students feedback on their writing. Quill is a nonprofit that’s raised $20 million from groups like Google’s charitable foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation over the past 10 years.

Even if a teacher or district wants to shell out for an AI tool, guidance for safe and responsible use is still getting worked out.

Goyette, the computer science coordinator for the education department, helped create state AI guidelines and speaks to county offices of education for in-person training on AI for educators. She also helped create an online AI training series for educators. She said the most popular online course is about workflow and efficiency, which shows teachers how to automate lesson planning and grading.

“Teachers have an incredibly important and tough job, and what’s most important is that they’re building relationships with their students,” she said. “There’s decades of research that speaks to the power of that, so if they can save time on mundane tasks so that they can spend more time with their students, that’s a win.”

This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in CalMatters.
Khari Johnson is CalMatters' first tech reporter. He previously covered artificial intelligence use by businesses and governments as a senior writer for WIRED and VentureBeat with an emphasis on policy, power, human rights abuses, and telling the stories of people demanding accountability after being harmed by automation. He previously covered local news in San Diego. He lives in Oakland.