Tony Guttmann, AKA Mr. Very Big, is a legend of Australian mathematics and of Australian mathematics education. He is a fellow of the AAS and pretty much everything else. Tony was the hero of Curriculum War 1 and was on the front lines of Curriculum War 2. Tony signed the recent mathematicians’ open letter on the errors in the 2022 VCE mathematics exams. Last week, Tony also submitted a letter to The Age, which The Age has so far declined to publish. Tony has given us permission to post his letter here. Tony’s letter follows.
Once again, the VCE mathematics examination has been plagued with errors. In my experience this has been a recurring issue for at least the past 40 years, and is as preventable as it is inexcusable.
Last year the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority commissioned a report from one of the big 4 accounting firms and other unnamed educational authorities and found themselves exonerated!
The solution is to get a professional mathematician (or ideally two) to check the examination papers before they are issued. How hard is that? Yet for nearly half a century the VCAA and its predecessors have resisted this course of action, for reasons best known to themselves.
The damage that a flawed question can do to a student in what is already a high stakes environment is difficult to overstate. Imagine being faced with a multiple choice question in which all choices are wrong! This will sow self-doubt in all but the most confident and capable student, but all students will waste precious time trying – fruitlessly – to decide where they have gone wrong.
The VCAA claim that students are compensated for errors, but that is not always possible. I know of one student who failed to get the Premier’s Prize for being the top student because the official answer to the question was wrong. The student’s mark was corrected some months later, but no mention of the prize was made.
This situation is not confined to mathematics. In a chemistry exam, students were asked about the property of a peptide, with the molecular structure given. Unfortunately that structure was not that of a peptide.
By employing experts to check the questions (and answers), the VCAA would not only be able to produce examination papers with a much higher standard of reliability but would have someone to blame if a mistake still crept in – much cheaper than hiring a big-4 accounting firm.
Emeritus Professor of Mathematics,
The University of Melbourne