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Local education startup Crowdmark aims to change how teachers grade

It is the bane of every teacher's existence: grading. Though essential, it's also repetitive and time-consuming. It is also increasingly prone to concerns about inequity: from grade inflation to inconsistent standards across different classrooms, sometimes parents, students, and even teachers themselves have a hard time deciding just what the grades they have assigned actually mean.

Aiming to help with both those problems is Toronto startup Crowdmark. Founded by two University of Toronto mathematics experts--the department's associate chair, James Colliander, and graduate student Martin Muñoz--Crowdmark provides teachers with a suite of tools to facilitate faster grading, and enables teachers to handle large volumes of grading collaboratively.

To use Crowdmark, teachers input the questions for a test into its customized PDF-maker. The result is a full printout of that test, in which each page of the copy received by each student has a customized code printed on it. Students write the test as usual, completing their answers by hand, and then teachers scan those tests into Crowdmark before doing their grading online. Because each page of each test has a unique identifier, Crowdmark's cloud-based tools can then sort the tests on a number of axes--by student, or by page of the test.

A group of grade three teachers could, for instance, collaborate on writing a test, and then split up the grading so that one teacher grades all the students' answers to question one, a second teacher grades all the answers to question two, and so on. It can be faster than looking at a whole test student by student, and it ensures that every answer to a given question is graded according to the same criteria, rather than changing based on which teacher is doing the grading.

"Teachers are very excited right now about an idea called moderated marking," says Colliander, which is essentially an attempt to strip teacher biases, grade inflation, and other variations out of the grading process, so there is consensus on what, say, an "A" means in any particular set of circumstances. "The shuffling of paper prevents many teachers from engaging in this kind of assessment."  

In addition to the tools that can make initial grading more efficient, Colliander believes, because tests are stored in the cloud in an organized way, teachers will be able to glean more information from them--more easily tracking a particular student over time, for instance, or seeing how test difficulty changes year by year.

"There's a desire for a much more rapid, iterative way of learning," Colliander concludes. His hope is that Crowdmark will give teachers the capacity to keep pace with that.

Started with $200,000 in seed funding from the University of Toronto, Crowdmark has recently seen that boosted to $600,000--some from the university, and some from MaRS Innovation. Crowdmark also recently completed two pilot projects working with teachers in grades 3 and 6. The company is currently meeting with venture capitalists and putting together a Series A round of funding. They plan to launch publicly in time for the 2013/2014 academic year.

Writer: Hamutal Dotan
Source: James Colliander, co-founder, Crowdmark
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