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Most Frosh Pass Essay, Math Test

By Eva Moy
News Editor

When freshmen meet with their academic advisers within the next few days, they will find out how they did on the freshman essay evaluation and pre-calculus math diagnostic tests they took last Friday.

Thirty-nine percent of the 1000 students who took the essay evaluation received a passing score, down from 41 percent last year. In addition, 11 percent received a "conditional pass," and the remaining students received one of two "not acceptable" ratings, according to Assistant Dean and Coordinator for the Writing Requirement Leslie C. Perelman.

Of the 1073 freshmen who took the math diagnostic, 54 percent received an "adequate" rating, 20 percent were weak in one area, and 26 percent were weak in two areas or had a total score too low to pass, said Margaret S. Enders, assistant dean for curriculum support.

Last year was the first time that both of these exams were given on the same day. "My sense is that [if] they're going to have to do this, they'd like to get it out of the way before rush starts," Enders said. This timetable also allows freshmen to choose their classes knowing how they performed on the tests, she added.

Freshman essay evaluation

The essay exam measures a student's writing proficiency and is used for advising purposes, Perelman said. It identifies writing weaknesses, which could hurt a student's performance in humanities classes if left uncorrected, he continued.

Passing the evaluation fulfills Phase I of the Institute Writing Requirement. Students can also pass Phase I by scoring a five on the Advanced Placement Language/ Composition test, 750 or higher on the American College Test, or through Interphase. Otherwise, they must either submit a paper to the writing requirement office or pass a writing subject which fulfills Phase I.

A small percentage of students received a "conditional pass," meaning that there were minor structure or grammar errors. The conditional pass can turn into a pass when the student revises his paper with a Writing Center tutor or attends a two-hour workshop, which Perelman will conduct this term.

Several reasons could explain why students who received a "not acceptable" or "not acceptable -- subject required" may have failed to show writing proficiency, Perelman said. They could have writing problems, not do well on timed writings, have jet lag, or not written as well as they could have given the question topics. These students will personally meet with Perelman or an assistant over the next month or two.

Perelman would not disclose the exact wording of the questions because he does not want future examinees to have an unfair advantage. However, he did describe the general content of the questions.

Students wrote two essays -- a narrative and an argument piece, Perelman said. They had two options in the narrative section: describe an incident where someone was rude or uncivil, or illustrate or refute a quotation about why there are so few women in science and engineering. For the second essay, students had to argue for or against a universal language.

"I think the questions this year went very well," Perelman said. He added that the responses were "quite thoughtful."

Essay grading seen as fair

The essay was graded by Boston-area writing teachers and professional writers, according to Perelman. They attended training sessions, where they learned to distinguish essays of different levels. For example, the graders looked at a well-written essay with bad handwriting, a short essay with good points, and a wordy essay that does not say much, Perelman said.

Math diagnostic

The math diagnostic, like the essay evaluation, is used to "help people and flag for their benefit whether their pre-calculus background is rusty," said Professor of Physics Anthony P. French.

Test questions fell into four categories: algebra; geometry and analytic geometry; trigonometry; and logarithms, exponentials, and complex numbers.

Of the 1073 freshmen who took the math diagnostic, 582 had an adequate background, 213 were weak in one area, and 278 were weak in two areas or had a total score too low to pass, Enders said. The scores were distributed with"pretty much a bell-shaped curve," French said.

The average time to complete the test was 70 minutes, with times evenly distributed, he added.

French said the math diagnostic was created when he "developed a strong sense, along with colleagues, that students performing poorly in 8.01 (Physics I)" did not have pre-calculus at their fingertips.

"For most students [the math diagnostic] was just a confirmation that they're fine" Enders said.

Students who are weak in two categories will take another test on Friday. Enders said she expects that most freshmen will pass the second exam.

Brush-up sessions will be offered

Each of the four sections on the math diagnostic had five questions, each worth five points. Students who scored lower than 17 out of 25 points in one section were considered weak in that section. Students who were weak in two sections or who overall received less than 67 out of 100 points did not pass the diagnostic.

Partial credit was awarded on some of the questions, French said. The grading was done by about 20 graduate students and some seniors with some experience in teaching math and physics, he added.

Enders suggested that students who are weak in one or more of the categories attend review sessions or practice on their own. Review sessions will be run by MIT students, she said.

If the weakness is easy to solve by going to the brush-up sessions, freshmen can "get the practice they need and then they're all set," Enders said.

Another option Enders suggested was to take a combination of Calculus I (18.01) and the slower-paced version of Physics I, 8.01L. French added that 8.01L was a "tremendous success" last year, its first year. With three extra weeks of class and a final exam scheduled apart from other finals, students may find it easier to learn the material.

Enders added that this year, students in all of the calculus classes, including 18.01, another version of Calculus I (18.011), and Calculus II (18.02) will need to attend reviews and pass the math diagnostic. Last year, only students in 18.01 had this requirement.