As I wrote about briefly, in December last year Burkard and I wrote a critique of the VCE mathematics exams, which was to form the basis of VCAA’s external review. As I’ve just written, here, dealing with VCAA was incredibly frustrating. More importantly, the overview VCAA released to us has entirely hidden the substance of the external review, and/but the review seems to be nothing more than distraction and whitewash. In particular, there still seems to be no clear appreciation within VCAA that mathematical truth is a thing, and that properly qualified mathematicians are by far the best judges of that thing.
After VCAA sent us their overview, and after having received no meaningful reply from VCAA’s CEO, Burkard and I decided the next step was to approach Victoria’s Minister of Education. As support for this, Burkard set up an open letter for university mathematicians to sign. The letter was limited in scope, focussing on what Burkard and I referred to as five major errors on the 2022 exams, and on the implications of these errors and VCAA’s subsequent mishandling of these errors.
The open letter and associated documents live on Burkard’s and my shared website, QEDcat.com. The open letter is here, the list of signatories is here, our full exam critique is here, the document just on the “five major errors” (including the vacuous exam report excerpts) is here, and the overview of VCAA’s external review is here.
Burkard and I have been in touch with the Minister’s office, with the open letter in support. Nothing has eventuated yet, but we are hopeful.
The text of the open letter follows.
In December 2022, two mathematicians, Professor Burkard Polster and Dr. Marty Ross, wrote a critique of the 2022 VCE mathematics exams. Polster and Ross’s critique covers many aspects of the exams and their administration but, in particular, identifies and discusses what they refer to as five major mathematical errors on the exams.
We are university mathematicians, we have read the exam questions at issue, and we agree with Polster and Ross. Whatever term one wishes to use, all five questions are unacceptably flawed. Each question exhibits some fundamental misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the underlying mathematics. Each question, at minimum, would have created unnecessary confusion, with a subsequent loss of time for at least some students, and probably many. It is difficult to imagine how the questions could have been graded in a fair and consistent manner, and in any case the flaws are simply, on a mathematical basis, unacceptable.
We have also read the exam reports on these questions, and they are as concerning as the questions themselves. The reports are completely silent on the flaws in the questions. This is professionally unacceptable and it is also exacerbating the damage. Current students look to past exams and reports for guidance; in these instances, the 2022 exams contain significant misguidance.
As university mathematicians, we are acutely aware of how difficult it is to write mathematics exams that are both clear and correct. Errors will inevitably occur from time to time. When errors occur, however, it is critical to be open and honest about it, and to do one’s best to mitigate the damage.
It is also critical, of course, to have the proper procedures in the first place, to do as much as one can to avoid the occurrence of serious errors. For the production of senior school mathematics exams, this proper process requires the intimate involvement of competent and attentive mathematicians. These mathematicians must be properly involved in both the writing and the vetting of the exams. The 2022 exams are evidence that such procedures are not currently in place in Victoria.
We urge the Minister to take this matter seriously. We urge the Minister to consult with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, along with senior Victorian mathematicians, with a view to revamping the current processes for the writing and vetting of VCE mathematics exams.
The list of signatories is here.