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690 pass writing exam

Seventy-one percent of students taking the Freshman Essay Evaluation received passing marks, according to figures released by the Committee on the Writing Requirement.

Of the 970 students who opted to take the evaluation, 291 passed, 399 received a marginal pass, and 280 failed the exam.

The students chose one of six essay topics, including divestment in South Africa, improvement of life in a country, decriminalization of marijuana, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, a personal cause, and test-tube babies.

Bonnie J. Walters, chairman of the Committee on the Writing Requirement, selected the essay topics with the aid of other committee members. The topics were all oriented to current events, because "I feel it is important to give something you can get your teeth into," she said.

The evaluation is graded in two sections. Thirteen or fourteen readers who "are not generally from MIT" graded the exams given on Sept. 3, Walters said. She characterized them as "people with a lot of experience in writing."

"Equally qualified" volunteers grade the tests taken on Sept. 6, Walters continued. They include writing department personnel, administrators such as Associate Provost S. Jay Keyser, and librarians, all "people with a background in writing."

When asked if the grading was balanced between the two sections, Walters said the outside readers in some cases might be more strict. She added, however, "some faculty are quite stringent."

Readers undergo a training session in July. During grading, the staff takes breaks when a single essay is duplicated and graded by all of the readers. This system assures that grading is consistent.

Twenty more students passed the evaluation than last year, even though 60 fewer students took the exam. Walters did not know why the results were improved. "I wish I could say the students are coming in better prepared. I'm not sure that's true."

Professor Kenneth R. Manning, director of the Writing Department, was very pleased by the improved results. He said, "The high schools are getting the message." The improved scores did not affect enrollment in writing courses, he said. "A lot of students still want to take writing," he explained. "We have a steady enrollment."

Walters stressed that the evaluation is only one option in one phase of the writing requirement, which she termed "a gradual process." Only 10 or 15 students complete Phase 1 through the English Achievement Test each year, she added.

The achievement test option exists to "send a message to high schools that MIT takes writing seriously," Walters continued. Phase 1 can also be completed through a paper or a writing course, "the least popular choice," she said.

"The philosophy of the requirement is to get students to write in all of their subjects," Manning said. He added that the writing department is "happy about that." Writing is one of the most popular choices for humanities concentration at the Institute, Manning said.

MIT is a school with a "diversity of talents" and "some excellent writers," Manning said. He added students who did not pass the essay evaluation should not feel bad. "Bright students can be taught to write very well. We're here to help people."

The diverse offerings in the writing department and the writing center are resourses available to students to develop writing skills, he said. Students should view the writing requirment as an opportunity. "Our attempt is to make you better writers."