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Most Freshmen Fail Essay Test

By Brett Altschul
staff reporter

Eighty percent of freshmen failed the Freshman Essay Evaluation, a slight decrease from last year's 83 percent failing rate.

Scores for the Pre-Calculus Math Diagnostic indicated, however, that 68 percent of freshmen passed, up from 58 percent last year.

The harsher grading system implemented last year accounted for the continued low passing rate on the essay evaluation. The scores were up only slightly from last year's 17 percent passing rate year, which reflected a huge drop from the 48 percent that passed in 1994.

Coordinator of the Writing Requirement Leslie C. Perelman said that of the 973 freshmen taking the FEE, 197 passed and 776 did not pass. The Office of the Writing Requirement recommended that 122 of those 776 take a writing course.

Students who received a five on the Advanced Placement Language and Composition Test were credited with completion of Phase One of the Institute Writing Requirement.

Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs Travis R. Merritt said it was unfortunate that there were so many people failing the test and so few spots in writing classes.

"When we give people subject recommended,' we ought to have subjects to accommodate them," Merritt said. The number of writing classes offered at MIT have dwindled in recent years.

Merritt said that MIT needs to hire more writing instructors to supplement the insufficient numbers currently employed. "They're not enough," he said. "Most students need to do more writing."

Math results see an increase

The results of the math diagnostic increased from last year, when the exact same test was used, said Associate Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs Peggy S. Enders.

Of the 1,060 freshmen who took the test, 719 received an adequate score, Enders said. This compares to 652 out of 1,115 the year before.

Most students who scored inadequately got fewer than 70 points out of 100, Enders said. However, a handful of students who scored a 70 or better were ruled to have performed inadequately because they showed weakness on two separate sections of the test.

Although the number of students with adequate scores rose, the average score dropped from 78 to 76 correct, Enders said.

"It's pretty much exactly the way students did a year ago," she said. Students took an average time of 56 minutes to finish the test, exactly the same as last year, Enders said.

Students who score lower than 55 on the math diagnostic are advised to register for 8.01L, the version of Physics I that extends through the Independent Activities Period, said Professor of Physics John W. Belcher, the academic officer for the Department of Physics.

"We advise them not to try 8.01," he said. "You lose the advantages of 8.01L if you try to do the harder class first."

Students who do poorly are also advised to attend pre-calculus mathematics help sessions, Enders said. The mathematics department recommends that these students take Calculus I (18.01) and students with AP credit take Calculus II (18.02S) or Calculus (18.01A), she said.

Physics quiz debuts

This year's math diagnostic also featured a five-question physics section made up of problems used by other colleges in the past, Enders said.

"There's a sense on the part of many faculty that it could help them understand the effectiveness of the physics course," Enders said.

The physics department eventually wants to have another test given after students finish 8.01, Belcher said. "But it's not certain that we'll be able to do that this year."

Belcher said that tests like these, which stress understanding of physics concepts rather than problem solving, have brought about some changes is the way that physics is taught at other colleges.

"The traditional method of lecture and problems may be teaching students to be good problem-solvers, while knowledge of the underlying physics concepts is lacking," Belcher said.

Belcher said that even if the test became an annual full-length examination, it would not be used to help decide physics placement. "The math is still the best judge for that," he said.

Changes considered in writing

One of the essay questions asked students if they thought the exam should be given online. The question was chosen because many freshmen expressed a desire to take the test on a computer in years past, he said.

About 60 percent of students argued against the idea, though, Perelman said. However, he cautioned that this may not be an accurate survey, as some students may argue against their actual position in order to build a better argument.

Freshman Mikey S. Fradin '00 had no complaint about the test. "I thought it was fair while I was taking it," she said, even though she did not pass the essay test. "It was probably not my best work, but it was decent."