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Math Test Scores Drop, while Essay Rises

By Stacey E. Blau

Forty-eight percent of the freshmen who took the Freshman Essay Evaluation received satisfactory scores, up by 9 percent from last year, according to Coordinator for the Writing Requirement Leslie C. Perelman. However, the number of students passing the Pre-Calculus Mathematics Diagnostic Exam dropped by 9 percent to 49 percent, according to Peggy S. Enders, associate dean of undergraduate academic affairs.

"The general consensus was that [the math exam] was harder, reflected in both the lower scores and the increased length of time students needed to complete the exam," said Professor of Mathematics Arthur P. Mattuck, who wrote both this year's and last year's mathematics exams.

The exams, administered each year to freshmen and transfer students, are used as gauges of students' abilities in expository writing and pre-calculus skills.

Essay topics: difficulty, diversity

Of the 1032 students who took the essay evaluation, 48 percent, or 495 students, passed the exam, Perelman said. Thirty-six students, or 3 percent, passed conditionally - meaning that they will have to attend a two-hour workshop to review the minor flaws in their essays.

An additional 401, or 39 percent, received a score of "not acceptable" because they did not show proficiency in expository writing. The remaining 100 students, or 10 percent, received a score of "not acceptable - subject recommended," meaning that the students could benefit immediately from taking a writing subject but are not required to do so.

The two-hour essay test consisted of a narrative and an argumentative essay, the same format as last year. The narrative essay offered students the choice of two topics: to describe a situation in which they encountered a difficulty with bureaucracy and how they resolved it, or to tell about an experience they had with people different from themselves and what they learned from it.

The argumentative question, which only had one possible topic, focused on the issue of pirated software on computer networks.

"Designing these questions is not an easy task given the constraints we have," Perelman said. "The questions must be accessible to 1100 diverse students. I am always on the lookout for questions for next year."

Trigonometry worst area

The math diagnostic exam highlighted weaknesses that students may have with pre-calculus skills, Enders said. The test consisted of four five-problem sections in the areas of algebra; geometry and analytic geometry; trigonometry; and logarithms, exponents, and complex numbers.

About 49 percent, or 535 of the 1090 students who took the exam, received satisfactory scores. That means "they have adequate pre-calculus and problem-solving abilities," Enders said.

Another 382 freshmen received unsatisfactory scores, meaning that they showed weaknesses in two or more areas on the test, and 174 students performed poorly in only one area, Enders said. This year's freshmen took an average of 87 minutes for the test; students last year took only 70 minutes, she said.

Of all the areas tested, "trigonometry was definitely the worst" in terms of freshman performance, according to Enders. "A lot of these students understand the stuff. They've just forgotten."

"Students with weak backgrounds in pre-calculus tend to do worse, particularly in Physics I (8.01). About 15 percent get a D or F," Enders said. "Students really need to have this material at their fingertips. They need to be fluent in it for both calculus and physics."

Unlike last year, students with unsatisfactory scores will not be required to pass a second diagnostic. Instead, study guides in each of the four areas were produced for students, Enders said.

Ifung Lu contributed to the reporting of this story.