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Essay Exam Pass Rate Plummets; Math Rate Rises

By David D. Hsu
News Editor

Only 17 percent of freshmen passed the Freshman Essay Evaluation this year, down from 48 percent last year.

The Committee on the Writing Requirement decided to raise the passing score, resulting in the pass rate drop, said Coordinator for the Writing Requirement Leslie C. Perelman.

However, 58 percent of freshmen passed their Pre-Calculus Mathematics Diagnostic, up from 49 percent last year. Additionally, students on average finished the math exam in one-third the time as last year.

Reaction mixed

It is "very awkward to have only 17 percent passing the test,"said Ronald S. Demon '99, who did not pass the essay evaluation. The passing rate gives the impression that "this class is not as strong as previous classes,"he said.

The Institute "should have a consistent grading system from year to year,"Demon said.

Because the exams come after a summer away from school, freshmen may not be fully prepared, said Cheryl M. Howell '99. "It took me a while to remember what to do," Howell said. "When you're thrust back into it, you don't know what to do."

In general, the exams were pretty straightforward, Howell said.

The math diagnostic was "a bit more difficult than the practice exam,"said Demon, who passed the test. But, "it was pretty fair," he said.

Stricter cutoff for essays

In terms of how students did on the essay evaluation and the quality of the essays, "it was the same as other years," Perelman said.

However, only 173 students taking the essay test passed the stricter standards, Perelman said. Seventy-three percent received "not acceptable" scores, and 9.5 percent received "not acceptable - subject recommended" scores, he said.

Last year, 48 percent received satisfactory scores, up 9 percent from 2 years ago.

Another 53 students passed with credit from placement exams, Perelman said. Students must satisfy Phase I of the Institute's writing requirement through placement exams or the essay evaluation, or they can opt to take an appropriate writing subject.

Freshman wrote an argumentative and narrative essay for the exam, Perelman said. In the narrative, students had to relate a story about conformity or describe how they learned to do something, he said. The argumentative topic asked students to improve one of the transportation systems that brought them to MIT, he said.

The topic was "a rather technical question" and should have been broader, Demon said.

Each essay was read by two scorers, Perelman said. The average scores were added together and normalized to a mean of 70 and a standard deviation of 10, he said. The "acceptable" cutoff point this year was moved to 79, up 7 points from last year, he said.

Unlike the previous three years, there was no "conditional" pass, Perelman said. The score of "conditional pass" was meant to be a three-year experiment.

Under a conditional pass, students had to attend a two-hour workshop to review the minor flaws in their essays. The committee "decided it was not worth the effort," he said.

Students do well in math test

The Pre-Calculus Diagnostic covered algebra, geometry and analytic geometry, trigonometry, logarithms, exponents, and complex numbers, said Associate Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs Margaret S. Enders.

Of the 1,115 students taking the test, 652 received adequate scores, Enders said. Thirteen percent, or 149 freshmen, showed weakness in one area, and 28 percent, or 314 students, had weaknesses in two areas or scored below a 70, she said.

The average score was 78, and students finished the exam in an average time of 56 minutes, 31 minutes fewer than last year's average time, Enders said.

"On the whole, students did well," Enders said. "The general sense [among mathematics professors] was that they were happy because a lot of students did well," she said.

One reason for the large improvement from last year was that the test was fairer and "not as complicated as last year," Enders said.

A low score on the diagnostic "doesn't mean that students are going to do badly," Enders said. "MITstudents are smart," she said.

However, students who receive a low score on the exam should be more deliberate in selecting a physics class, Enders said. The physics department recommends that students with scores lower than a 50 should take the version of Physics I (8.01L) that extends through the Independent Activities Period, she said.

The trigonometry section in particular "is the area where there is an indicator of performance later," Enders said. "We have seen a tendency that a really low score on the math diagnostic increases chances of failing physics," she said.