SACs of Shit

SACs may not be the greatest problem with VCE mathematics, but they’re right up there. SACs are torture for teachers and torture for students. They teach nothing. As assessment, they are unnecessary, unreliable and phenomenally inefficient. They are a license for VCAA’s unaswerable auditors applying Kafkaesque rules to act either as favour-givers or as little Hitlers, as the mood takes them. These problems are currently amplified to eleven by VCAA’s “We’ll give you some kind of guidance in, oh, a little while” plan for the plague year.

For all of the awfulness of the above, that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that the majority of SACs are monumentally stupid. Literally. A SAC has the imposing presence of a monument, its towering stupidity casting a shadow over everything.

How are SACs so bad? Many contain errors, often subtle although too often not, but, as irritating as that is, that is not the main problem. The main problem is that they are mathematical nonsense. Typically they will present the student with a ridiculous model of a contrived problem, which is then all redone in greater, brain-bludgeoning generality by throwing in a needless parameter in a randomly chosen location. All of this is undertaken, of course, in the nihilistic world of CAS. Finally, somewhere near the end, the poor beleaguered student, who by this stage just wants to escape with their life, will be required to “comment on the model”, to which the usual response is “It’s really nice, please let me go” and to which the only reasonable response is “It’s fucking insane”.

How do we know SACs are this bad? Because we see them. We see the commercial SACs, and the sample SACs, and the past SACs, and the current SACs. Are they all as bad as we suggest? No, of course not. Specialist SACs are typically nowhere near as bad as Methods SACs, and even many Methods SACs will fall short of truly idiotic torture, rising only to the level of being dumb and painful. Then there are the rare few SACs we see that are good, resulting in an exchange:

“This actually makes sense. Who’s your teacher?”

“Oh, it’s Mr. ….”

“Ah. Yes.”

So, yes, the quality and worth of SACs varies widely, but the average is squarely in the neighbourhood of monumental, tortuous stupidity. Which bring us to the “why”. Why are SACs in general so awful? There are two reasons.

The first and fundamental reason is the VCAA and their view of what they imagine is a curriculum. VCE mathematics subjects are so shallow and so lacking in a foundation of solid reason, that almost any attempt at depth and substance in a SAC is destined to be farce. The VCAA has replaced foundation and depth with CAS, which reaches peak awfulness in SACs. The VCAA promotes the fantasy that CAS magically transforms students into mathematical explorers, clever little Lewises and Clarks skilfully navigating the conceptual wilderness. The reality, of course, is much less Lewis and Clark than it is Burke and Wills. To top it off, SACs must follow guidelines that Terry Gilliam would be proud of, giving us Burke and Wills’ Bogus Brazilian Journey. Or, just Eraserhead. Something like that.

The second reason is the teachers. Sort of. Even if the subjects were coherent, even if they were unpoisoned by CAS and were unconstrained by vague and ridiculous conditions, even then writing a good SAC would be a very difficult and massively time-consuming task. Most teachers just don’t have the mathematical background, or the literary skill, to write a coherent, correct and mathematically rich SAC; many cannot even recognise one. And, that’s writing a good SAC for this imaginary good subject; writing a good SAC for these fundamentally flawed subjects with their ridiculous constraints is close to impossible, even for a strong teacher. And which teachers, particularly weaker teachers, have the time to compose such a good SAC? Why bother trying? And so, with the greatest common sense, most teachers do not. Most teachers stick to the audit-proof and meaningless formulaic SAC bullshit that the VCAA expects and effectively demands.

The VCAA’s SAC system is a crime against mathematical humanity.

UPDATE (15/5)

We received the following from a student acquaintance (who hadn’t read this post):

Hi Marty, given the upcoming math SACs approaching soon, the pressure is on to practice and practice. Attached below is last year’s Methods SAC1 (Unit 3/4) for [the student’s school]. I remember many talented friends of mine who were stumped, and didn’t do very well on this SAC. Personally, I thought this SAC was horrifying. In contrast to Specialist, (I actually quite enjoy Specialist!), Methods seems to be a huge prick because of frustrating, ambiguous SACs containing questions seemingly cooked from the pits of hell itself. Are these sort of SACs common across the state?

The student is, of course, correct. The SAC, which comes from a highly respected school, is a nightmare in all of the ways canvassed above. From start to end it is idiotic CAS-driven pseudo-modelling, complete with Magritte nonsense and a pointlessly prissy grading scheme. And, yes, the SAC contains an error.

Of course we won’t reveal the school, much less any teachers involved, which means that we are also unable to critique the SAC in detail. But that is one of the insidious aspects of the SAC system; an entirely proper concern for privacy means that SAC nonsense, although endemic, fails to be exposed to the public critique that is so very much needed.

UPDATE (26/7)

Once again, this time in response to this post, a student from a “good” school has contacted us in regard to their SAC. This was a Specialist SAC, and the student had contacted us because the teachers/writers had screwed up: some tech aspects of the SAC were a mess, and the subsequent clean-up of the mess was clearly disingenuous and clearly insufficient. But, as always, the situation was much worse that the student suggested.

The student’s SAC was ridiculous. From beginning to end it was pointless, CAS-driven pseudo-modelling. It had the idiotic parameters thrown in. It was poorly written. It displayed poor mathematical understanding, leading to ridiculous own goals. It. Was. Not. Mathematics.

And, we can’t write the details of any of this.

43 Replies to “SACs of Shit”

  1. I’d love to add something but you’ve said it all. I agree with everything you’ve said. And your title for this blog is right on the money.

    1. JF:

      Do you know how to pick and choose schools for SAC auditing?

      VCAA said 10% of schools are “randomly selected” but I really doubt it.

      I have a feeling that small schools are too easy to be audited, whereas large schools don’t get audited at all.

      Also, the results of auditing really depend on who the auditor is (I may be wrong, if it is, please point it out)

      I knew a number of anonymous friends who had been audited in MM and Spesh.
      Normally they wouldn’t put too much fire on MM, if the cohort is large (~100-200 students)
      Even some teachers use clear mark allocations, funny theme stories with a number of exam-style questions.

      However, what becomes even more inconsistent and ridiculous is, if you did the same thing in Spesh as I described above, you normally fail your Spesh SAC auditing.

      Honestly I agree with you because I think eventually it will come to exam, so why bother making those “investigations” and “application open-endedness”?

      Not only is the nature of gravy train exposed, but also human nature.
      Bullying the minorities and the weak ones, protecting the interests of the mainstream and “majority”.
      And this is also a strong indication of polarization in education resources.

      1. Remember there are different types of audit. One of them doesn’t actually look at the SACs written for that unit at all…

        And, in any case, I still don’t quite understand the consequences of failing a SAC audit, except that you automatically get audited the following semester. Has anyone had experience different to this?

        1. I know a school that failed all three stages of the audit and was audited again the following year. The school’s response the following year was to say that their SAC was modelled on a SAC written by the auditor and it was therefore assumed that it was VCAA compliant. They passed the audit. I suspect it would have been embarrassing for the auditor to have a spotlight shone on their own SAC (written for a commercial organisation) – it was a piece of crap and also non-compliant with VCAA rules!! (I know, I’ve seen it).

          I have not heard of any school failing consecutive audits. I suppose if that happened, VCAA would send someone in to breath down the school’s neck and supervise the process.

          1. From what I have seen, VCAA “speaks to the principal”. Which means…?

            If teachers banded together and decided to not fear the audit process it would become pretty clear pretty quickly how toothless the tiger actually was.

            I do wonder if they need to fail a few schools every now and again (like happened to a bunch of private schools a few years ago in semester 1) to keep themselves feeling relevant. I read a bunch of SACs that failed and one that passed this round of audits. The difference was very small. The SAC that passed had ONE open-ended question in one part. The others seem to have failed on this criterion alone.

            1. RF, I cannot judge how much teachers should fear the auditors, or the VCAA in general, but, undoubtedly many do so. I think your are correct, that if teachers/schools collectively pushed back on the VCAA, on all manner of things, then the VCAA would quickly become way less arrogant. But I’m not going to criticise any individual teacher for putting their head up to be shot at. Independent of any fear, collective action is less likely because many teachers and principals respect the VCAA; some are too dumb to know better, and some have a thoughtless respect for authority.

                1. Yes, the madness of crowds is always with us. But the ignorant and sheepish madness of teachers drips with irony.

            2. So there’s another inconsistency – I know of schools that have had ONE open-ended question in one part and failed. Apparently the open-endedness was not significant enough in the SAC, whatever that’s meant to mean.

              Schools and teachers had a great chance to push back by refusing to be a part of the Mathematica and CBE Pilot. But as Marty has eloquently put it ….

    1. Ah yes, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Mathematical Adventure (2009) is still one of my favourites from Maths Methods – over 10 years old and still not forgotten. I’m sure our paths have crossed, Glen ….

      My other personal favourite is from Specialist Maths (2011) – The Chase (and Escape?) of Galaxian Highscore.

      Smell the nostalgia ….

      The good old days of high quality commercial products.

      1. Maybe!

        There was a TV series. In one of the episodes their math teacher Ms Spleen threatens to expel them. I don’t remember what happened, but it was probably outrageous.

      2. Galaxian Highcore?

        Must give credit to JF.

        Thanks for its frequent occurence in some high quality commercial produced SAC and trial exams, frankly, no flattering.

        To be honest, I think that frequently appearing topic is as good as Tasmania Jones and his cousin Victoria, even better in some ways.

    2. Well, I kind of did. But I figured using the expression “excellent adventure” anywhere in a discussion on SACs would be sending the exact wrong message.

  2. In addition to the criticisms already made, the assessment structure + auditing process encourages some very cynical and duplicitous behaviour from teachers. I have heard stories of schools having two kinds of SACs in their resources: exam style that would definitely not pass an audit, and investigation style that would pass an audit. The students are given the exam style SAC; if VCAA comes knocking, the school hands over the investigation style SAC.

    1. I’m not surprised. I don’t condemn it. The SAC system totally encourages “cynical and duplicitous behaviour from teachers”.

      You have teachers who bust their hump to follow the rules and then get screwed over on technicalities (‘failed’ on the basis of showing the number of marks a question is worth, providing writing lines, having questions that are specifically CAS-free, ratio of marks is not exactly as prescribed etc.) Much easier to just game the system.

      I am personally aware of at least one sweet-heart deal VCAA made with a school who participates in the Methods CBE Pilot Program – an automatic pass of the Maths Methods audit (I have seen the SAC, it would have failed an audit at any other school).

      And on the topic of those ridiculous ratios of Outcome 1, Outcome 2 and Outcome 3 marks …. What’s routine in one school is non-routine in another, use of technology can be routine or non-routine etc. What a stupid imposition of meaningless crap.

      1. Apart from the work that teachers might do to create satisfactory-by-the-lights-of-an-audit SACs, there’s also the work involved in preparing students for a task of such a nature. This typically involves giving students a “practice” SAC, so there’s double the workload there (ok so at least that one can be reused). But then it’s the feedback involved, the class time, etc.

        And in the end, whether your SAC is great or rubbish kinda doesn’t matter, because all results are standardised to the exam scores. To the extent that having a good SAC is beneficial, it’s for the intrinsic value of the learning experience it might provide. Obviously a lot of teachers and students will not think it’s worth the effort.

        1. Yes, SRK, this is the worst aspect. Not only is a teacher not rewarded for writing a good SAC, there is a great risk that they will be punished. It is precisely the banality of evil.

    2. I do just this! Been audited FOUR (!!!) times in the last 7 years – including 2020! Sick and tired of it!

  3. Hot off the press (

    “Schools that have not yet submitted enough evidence to show that VCAA assessment standards and requirements are being met may …. withdraw their audit submission for the relevant VCE study and defer the audit to a future date, to be advised by the VCAA. Schools that indicate they wish to defer the audit will not be recorded as non-compliant in relation to the 2020 Unit 3 audit process.”

  4. Our Further Maths SACs were audited. Our SAC for financial maths & recursion did not pass. Apparently the auditor(s) were concerned about how weaker students would cope with the “lack of scaffolding”, but then went on to complain that the task was too directed and not “open-ended” enough.

    I did not contribute to the creation of this SAC, so I am not that invested in it, but the comments in the audit report were very opaque and unhelpful. Generic suggestions like “instruct students to choose an interest rate” do not address the issues this would create, such as (i) extra time involved in marking (sure, this can be automated by constructing macros in a spreadsheet, but that still needs to be done), (ii) students choosing unreasonable interest rates that creates problems downstream (sure, we can set an acceptable range of rates within which students choose, but then why not just pick one for them?) (iii) spending instructional time training students (especially weaker students) for how to manage this sort of task. The lack of clear worked examples and standards puts us in a very difficult position with writing a task that appeases VCAA but is also accessible to our weaker students and manageable to implement for our teachers.

    1. Not to mention trying to write a SAC with a modicum of mathematical merit. That’s what really shits me. You could write an absolutely great SAC, with well-written and insightful questions, but the auditors won’t give a flying fuck if you don’t tick all their idiot boxes. And it is no surprise at all that they write cheap, vague commentary, as part of their micro-nit picking. It is an absolutely mindless, absolutely evil system.

      1. I totally agree, Marty. VCAA doesn’t give a flying Philadelphian about the quality of the mathematics, as long as all its linear thinking criteria are satisfied.

        If only every school in Victoria would tell VCAA to go gvdl itself, how much better things would be. VCAA might even learn some humility.

    2. Well said, SRK. Very well said. This is the whole problem with the ‘let students pick their own parameters’ bullshit. The SACs are audited by pompous, sanctimonious, clueless, hypocritical muppets (and that’s their good qualities). Their feedback is always ignorant, generic and self-contradictory and comes straight from the Magic Faraway Tree. I’ll bet they mindlessly use a Comment Bank to generate their reports. I’m sure the context of student cohort is not considered important.

      Was your audit this year? If so, then you have the option to (retrospectively I assume if the option was not available prior to your submission) “withdraw [your] audit submission for the relevant VCE study and defer the audit to a future date, to be advised by the VCAA. Schools that indicate they wish to defer the audit will not be recorded as non-compliant in relation to the 2020 Unit 3 audit process.”

  5. JF, yes this was quite recent feedback. I doubt we’ll defer the audit, probably in the long run it’s easier to make a few quick adjustments and get it over and done with.

    1. Maybe the maths teachers at your school should adopt “cynical and duplicitous behaviour” ….

      (It’s audits like your one that push good teachers to such behaviours).

  6. To follow up on my post above. A teacher at our school rewrote the finance & recursion SAC. The changes that were made: (i) students were given some more choice in what initial amount to borrow, and which loan options to take (ie. repayment amount, interest rate, duration of loan); (ii) the options available are “real” values, in that they are quoted from websites / advertising material, and company logos / names are included.

    However, the new SAC is significantly less rigorous – the range of skills / concepts from the study design that are assessed is far narrower. Furthermore some of the supposed “modeling” aspects are as contrived as the previous SAC(s). There were also some minor errors / infelicities in the way questions were written. (Perhaps this hardly needs to be said, but none of this is intended as criticism of the teacher who put in the time and effort to rewrite the SAC).

    The new SAC passed the audit, and apparently received high – albeit extremely nonspecific – praise from the auditor. When I gave my feedback on the new SAC to the teacher who wrote it, they were frustrated that at no stage in the audit process (either the first SAC failing or the new one passing) did the auditor provide any specific and useful feedback. Hence, despite rewriting the SAC and going through the audit process, there is still a substantial amount of work that needs to be done before the SAC is usable.

    I’d suggest to my colleagues that we just use the old SAC anyway, but apparently some of them have already given it to students as practice.

  7. So we all agree that the SAC system is shit for both teachers and students. No surprise. In fact, the SAC system was recognised as being shit before it even existed …

    Below is a paper written by Barry McCrae (The University of Melbourne), John Dowsey (The University of Melbourne) and Max Stephens (Victorian Board of Studies) (VBOS is now VCAA). The paper was written in 1998 and makes interesting reading. What is even more interesting is the fact that Wankaster and his band of merry morons clearly chose (and continue to choose) to totally ignore what it says. Wankaster is not fit to tie Max Stephens’ shoe laces.


    1. Congratulations. You’re off the hook for at least the next couple of years (in Further, anyway). And maybe (we can only hope) in a couple of years time SACs will have gone the way of the dodo.

      There’s amoral to the story lol 😉

    1. Thanks, John. Many people seem to remember the CATs with at least some affection. I could never understand it myself.

      1. Nostalgia has a lot to answer for.

        What I remember is hundreds of hours of work for students and teachers, a ridiculous marking rubric, solutions being sold at the Prahran market, a stupid test to authenticate student work, …. People who remember CATs with any affectation whatsoever are \displaystyle non \displaystyle compos \displaystyle mentis.

        What people are probably remembering is that the ‘Starting Points’ were (mostly) very good and clever.

        For those fools feeling any affectation whatsoever for CATs, maybe the attachment will bring you back to the reality of the times. If not, seek urgent professional help.

        Old CAT Criteria

  8. I tutor a student, who has just done a Methods SAC. She saw her paper briefly, but they are not allowed to keep them. Apparently she get some criteria sheet. How is she supposed to learn from her mistakes when she can’t access the question paper? Is there some system people use to get around this please?

    1. Good question (to which I don’t know the answer). SACs are even worse as a method of learning than as a method of assessment. Their only redeeming feature is none. There is no redeeming feature.

    2. The school probably uses the same SAC every year. It doesn’t care about “How is she supposed to learn from her mistakes when she can’t access the question paper?”

      And then one day a student gets their hands on a ‘past’ SAC (maybe through a tutor or a past student who took screenshots with their phone), they include it in their bound reference (together with detailed solutions), word gets out after the SAC and the school has to organise a new SAC. Cry me a river.

  9. I’m tutoring a student, but don’t teach Methods or Spesh. Given that SACs are here, what are the best strategies for students to tackle this open-ended nonsense please?

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