Yesterday was perhaps a stirring example of this; the students all had to take an in-class essay on the King Arthur readings. As I went through and graded the assignments, I noticed something interesting: none of the scores surprised me. The students I would have expected to do well, did well. The students who pulled off solid "B" week were ok. The students who didn't really read but do a pretty good job (almost) at pretending got slightly lower scores, and some just put down words in order to get some points. It was an "assessment" in the one the sense...but looking back, it really didn't tell me anything I (or the students) didn't already know. There weren't any students who tried really hard and ended up failing. There weren't any students who thought they couldn't write but actually were amazing. Everyone got out what they put in; a rather simple exchange.
It made me stop and wonder: what's the point, then, of these in-class essays. Is this meant to evidence to modify teaching, is it meant to be diagnostic for the students' skills? If so, it's not really showing anything new. Is it meant to be a punishment? (i.e. you'd better read or else you're fail the essay!) If so, it didn't really accomplish this goal as some kids would read anyway, others didn't read but faked it well, and some kids still didn't read. Is the essay simply practice at writing in short controlled bursts? Once again, it helped the people that didn't need help, and was irrelevant to the students who probably did.
This post isn't meant to criticize students as lazy or poor writers; in fact I don't blame many of them. At this point in their education, many of reaching a practical maximum of the writing skills they'll use in life. I remember faking my way through the entire second semester of Calculus in high school...not because I was mentally unable to figure it out, but I didn't care enough to put the time in. For these seniors approaching the second semester of their final year, the challenge remains: how do you get someone to care about something when you both know its probably won't be important for them in the long run?