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Frosh To Take Math Diagnostic Test

By Andrea Lamberti

During Residence/Orientation Week this year freshmen will take a math diagnostic test, the results of which will be provided to students and their advisors before class selection in the fall.

The test is designed to help freshmen check their math backgrounds against certain math skills in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, analytic geometry, and logarithms and exponentials they will be expected to know at MIT.

"There's a perception among administrators and faculty members, particularly faculty in the core science departments, that a significant number of MIT students enter the science core with their pre-calculus math skills in rusty condition," Associate Dean for Student Affairs Travis R. Merritt said.

"We thought that . . . it would be a good idea to use this diagnostic procedure . . . in order to give students and their advisors some early sense of any shortfalls and means of correcting those shortfalls or deficits," Merritt, who heads the Undergraduate Academic Support Office, added.

In June, members of the Class of 1995 received a version of the test and a set of solutions.

The actual test given during R/O Week will have the same number of questions and be similar in nature to the summer version, according to Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret S. Enders, who is overseeing the diagnostic test program.

Students will be expected to finish the 20-question test in about 45 minutes, but two hours have been scheduled for the test, Enders said. The test will will be given in small classrooms rather than large lecture halls, and it may have a flexible starting time, so that students are not do not feel pressure if someone around them finishes early, Enders said.

A test average will not be published, but the average time taken to finish the test might be published, Enders said. The test will not be graded for passing or failing grades; students will be told how many questions they answered correctly in each section, and how long it took them to finish the test.

Professor of Physics Anthony P. French, who was an author of the test, said, "Obviously we'll be interested in the statistical results, but we don't think there will be any great surprises there. [The test is] very much geared to help the student choose the most appropriate program for him, in other words, which math class, should they consider postponing physics by one semester, things like that."

French was the primary author of the test but incorporated "a lot of consultation and trials

by various students ending their freshman year" in putting the test together, he said.

Summer math hotline

In the letter sent with the diagnostic test to freshmen, Enders said, "The diagnostic is based on the kinds of things you should have at your fingertips when

you begin your first semester here. . . . The purpose of this exercise is to enable you to discover any weak points in your pre-calculus proficiency and take steps to remedy them in advance."

Toward that end, the Undergraduate Education Office has set up a toll-free hotline, staffed by current MIT students, to answer any questions freshmen may have about the test or about how they can review material.

Additionally, math review "modules" have been prepared and are available for freshmen who want them. French and Adelaida Moranescu '94 wrote the review packets on the five subjects covered in the test, which are partly based on previous review modules prepared by the mathematics department.

For students who want to review further once they arrive at MIT, four review nights will be held during the first week of classes in the fall. During the three-hour sessions, tutors from the Departments of Math and Physics will provide problems and go over solutions for students who want to review further.

These reviews will be followed up by more in-depth review sessions throughout the subsequent three weeks in the fall.

So far, about 15-20 students have responded to the hotline or in writing to the UEO.

Judy A. Jeanmonod '93, who staffs the hotline two days a week, said that so far "the general consensus [from freshmen] is that they think it's a good idea." The freshmen who have called to date have requested all of the review modules.

Enders said she hoped students would request the review modules, but added, "What we suspect is that most students will have no problems at all [with the test, but] some will find that they're rusty" in certain areas.

Those involved in preparing the test and accompanying information sent to the freshmen said they were cautious in making sure they did not intimidate freshmen with the tone of the letter, and in making clear the intent of the exam. "We don't want anybody to feel that they're being grilled; this is intended as a support activity, not a threatening one," Merritt said.

He added that the test is "not designed so much to put every student in his or her niche, but simply to help to identify students who . . . really need to be reminded of things they used

to know and have forgotten, or maybe because of their high school background have never gotten a grip on."

Possible effect

on high schools

Enders said the diagnostic may have an effect on high school math curricula. "Part of this is an outreach to schools to let them know we feel this material is important," she said. Enders has received inquiries from two high schools so far.

"We would like to spread this information around," French said. "I personally hope that this could be one of its most useful features, of value not only to MIT but to other colleges and high schools generally."

MIT first gave a math diagnostic test in the mid-1960s, French said, and it was given for two or three subsequent years. It was usually given in the first physics recitation of the year. "The results were very reproducible," and gave faculty a "pretty good idea of the distribution of backgrounds" freshmen were coming from, French said. More tests were given about 10 years later, he said, but none have been given since.

The topic was revived this spring, French explained, and "it was decided that it would be appropriate to give these tests again."

Part of the impetus to give the diagnostic grew out of the new grading system in effect for the first time last year, under which freshmen need a C grade to pass instead of a D grade.

French said that with the new grading system in place, roughly twice as many freshmen failed a core science subject last year -- approximately five percent failed a core science class before last year, compared with about 10 percent during the 1990-91 school year. "It's more than one would like to see," French said.

" The results of this past year . . . sort of heightened the awareness [that] maybe some students get in over their heads in the first year, and we'd like to avoid that as much as possible."

"It isn't that the courses have changed or that the academic level of the students have changed," French added, "it's merely that the new grading has created a new situation."