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.

The Methods Intelligence Test

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman dedicates his book Thinking Fast and Slow  to the memory of Amos Tversky, his long-time collaborator. Tversky was considered so brilliant by his colleagues that they came up with the Tversky Intelligence Test:

The faster you realise that Amos Tversky is smarter than you, the smarter you are.

It has occurred to us that there is a similar Methods Intelligence Test:

The slower you realise that Methods is stupider than you, the stupider you are.

MAV’s Dangerous Inflection

This post concerns a question on the 2019 VCE Specialist Mathematics Exam 2 and, in particular, the solution and commentary for that question available through the Mathematical Association of Victoria. As we document below, a significant part of what MAV has written on this question is confused, self-contradictory and tendentious. Thus, noting the semi-official status of MAV solutions, that these solutions play a significant role in MAV’s Meet the Assessors events, and are quite possibly written by VCE assessors, there are some troubling implications. Question 3, Section B on Exam 2 is a differential equations problem, with two independent parts. Part (a) is a routine (and pretty nice) question on exponential growth and decay.* Part (b), which is our concern, considers the differential equation

    \[\boldsymbol{\color{blue}\frac{{\rm d}Q}{{\rm d}t\ } = e^{t-Q}}\,,\]

for t ≥ 0, along with the initial condition

    \[\boldsymbol{\color{blue}Q(0) =1}\,.\]

The differential equation is separable, and parts (i) and (ii) of the question, worth a total of 3 marks, asks to set up the separation and use this to show the solution of the initial value problem is

    \[\boldsymbol{\color{blue}Q =\log_e\hspace{-1pt} \left(e^t + e -1\right)}\,.\]

Part (iii), worth 2 marks, then asks to show that “the graph of Q as a function of t” has no inflection points.** Question 3(b) is contrived and bitsy and hand-holding, but not incoherent or wrong. So, pretty good by VCE standards. Unfortunately, the MAV solution and commentary to this problem is deeply problematic. The first MAV misstep, in (i), is to invert the derivative, giving

    \[\boldsymbol{\color{red}\frac{{\rm d}t\ }{{\rm d}Q } = e^{Q-t}}\,,\]

prior to separating variables. This is a very weird extra step to include since, not only is the step not required here, it is never required or helpful in solving separable equations. Its appearance here suggests a weak understanding of this standard technique. Worse is to come in (iii). Before considering MAV’s solution, however, it is perhaps worth indicating an approach to (iii) that may be unfamiliar to many teachers and students and, possibly, the assessors. If we are interested in the inflection points of Q,*** then we are interested in the second derivative of Q. The thing to note is we can naturally obtain an expression for Q” directly from the differential equation: we differentiate the equation using the chain rule, giving

    \[\boldsymbol{\color{magenta}Q'' = e^{t-Q}\left(1 - Q'\right)}\,.\]

Now, the exponential is never zero, and so if we can show Q’ < 1 then we’d have Q” > 0, ruling out inflection points. Such conclusions can sometimes be read off easily from the differential equation, but it does not seem to be the case here. However, an easy differentiation of the expression for Q derived in part (ii) gives

    \[\boldsymbol{\color{magenta}Q' =\frac{e^t}{e^t + e -1}}\,.\]

The numerator is clearly smaller than the denominator, proving that Q’ < 1, and we’re done. For a similar but distinct proof, one can use the differential equation to replace the Q’ in the expression for Q”, giving

    \[\boldsymbol{\color{magenta}Q'' = e^{t-Q}\left(1 - e^{t-Q}\right)}\,.\]

Again we want to show the second factor is positive, which amounts to showing Q > t. But that is easy to see from the expression for Q above (because the stuff in the log is greater than \boldsymbol{e^t}), and again we can conclude that Q has no inflection points. One might reasonably consider the details in the above proofs to be overly subtle for many or most VCE students. Nonetheless the approaches are natural, are typically more efficient (and are CAS-free), and any comprehensive solutions to the problem should at least mention the possibility. The MAV solutions make no mention of any such approach, simply making a CAS-driven beeline for Q” as an explicit function of t. Here are the contents of the MAV solution:

Part 1: A restatement of the equation for Q from part (ii), which is then followed by 

.˙.  \boldsymbol{ \color{red}\  \frac{{\rm d}^2Q }{{\rm d}t^2\ } = \frac{e^{t+1} -e^t}{\left(e^t + e -1\right)^2} } 

Part 2: A screenshot of the CAS input-output used to obtain the conclusion of Part 1.

Part 3: The statement   

Solving  .˙.  \boldsymbol{\color{red} \  \frac{{\rm d}^2Q }{{\rm d}t^2\ } = 0} gives no solution  

Part 4: A screenshot of the CAS input-output used to obtain the conclusion of Part 3.

Part 5: The half-sentence

We can see that \boldsymbol{\color{red}\frac{{\rm d}^2Q }{{\rm d}t^2\ } > 0} for all t,

Part 6: A labelled screenshot of a CAS-produced graph of Q”.

Part 7: The second half of the sentence,

so Q(t) has no points of inflection

This is a mess. The ordering of the information is poor and unexplained, making the unpunctuated sentences and part-sentences extremely difficult to read. Part 3 is so clumsy it’s funny. Much more important, the MAV “solution” makes little or no mathematical sense and is utterly useless as a guide to what the VCE might consider acceptable on an exam. True, the MAV solution is followed by a commentary specifically on the acceptability question. As we shall see, however, this commentary makes things worse. But before considering that commentary, let’s itemise the obvious questions raised by the MAV solution:
  • Is using CAS to calculate a second derivative on a “show that” exam question acceptable for VCE purposes?
  • Can a stated use of CAS to “show” there are no solutions to Q” = 0 suffice for VCE purposes? If not, what is the purpose of Parts 3 and 4 of the MAV solutions?
  • Does copying a CAS-produced graph of Q” suffice to “show” that Q” > 0 for VCE purposes?
  • If the answers to the above three questions differ, why do they differ?
Yes, of course these questions are primarily for the VCAA, but first things first. The MAV solution is followed by what is intended to be a clarifying comment:

Note that any reference to CAS producing ‘no solution’ to the second derivative equalling zero would NOT qualify for a mark in this ‘show that’ question. This is not sufficient. A sketch would also be required as would stating \boldsymbol{\color{red}e^t (e - 1) \neq 0} for all t.

These definitive-sounding statements are confusing and interesting, not least for their simple existence. Do these statements purport to be bankable pronouncements of VCAA assessors? If not, what is their status? In any case, given that pretty much every exam question demands that students and teachers read inscrutable VCAA tea leaves, why is it solely the solution to question 3(b) that is followed by such statements? The MAV commentary at least makes clear their answer to our second question above: quoting CAS is not sufficient to “show” that Q” = 0 has no solutions.  Unfortunately, the commentary raises more questions than it answers:
  • Parts 3 and 4 are “not sufficient”, but are they worth anything? If so, what are they worth and, in particular, what is the import of the word “also”? If not, then why not simply declare the parts irrelevant, in which case why include those parts in the solutions at all?
  • If, as claimed, it is “required” to state \boldsymbol{e^t(e-1)\neq 0} (which is indeed the key point of this approach and should be required), then why does the MAV solution not contain any such statement, nor even the factorisation that would naturally precede this statement?
  • Why is a solution “required” to include a sketch of Q”? If, in particular, a statement such as \boldsymbol{e^t(e-1)\neq 0} is “required”, or in any case is included, why would the latter not in and of itself suffice?
We wouldn’t begin to suggest answers to these questions, or our four earlier questions, and they are also not the main point here. The main point is that under no circumstances should such shoddy material be the basis of VCAA assessor presentations. If the material was also written by VCAA assessors, all the worse. Of course the underlying problem is not the quality or accuracy of solutions but, rather, the fundamental idiocy of incorporating CAS into proof questions. And for that the central villain is not the MAV but the VCAA, which has permitted their glorification of technology to completely destroy the appreciation of and the teaching of proof and reason. The MAV is not primarily responsible for this nonsense. The MAV is, however, responsible for publishing it, promoting it and profiting from it, none of which should be considered acceptable. The MAV needs to put serious thought into its unhealthily close relationship with the VCAA.   *) We might ask, however, who refers to “The growth and decay” of an exponential function? **) One might simply have referred to Q, but VCAA loves them their words. ***) Or, if preferred, the points of inflection of the graph of Q as a function of t.

Update (26/06/20)

The Examination Report is out and is basically ok; none of the nonsense and non sequiturs of the MAV solutions are included. The solution to (b)(iii) correctly focuses upon the factoring of Q”, although it needlessly worries about the sign of the denominator. There is no mention of the more natural approach to obtaining and analysing Q” but, given the question is treated by the VCAA and pretty much everyone as just another mindless exercise in pushing buttons, this is no surprise.

Foundation Stoned

The VCAA is reportedly planning to introduce Foundation Mathematics, a new, lower-level year 12 mathematics subject. According to Age reporter Madeleine Heffernan, “It is hoped that the new subject will attract students who would not otherwise choose a maths subject for year 12 …”. Which is good, why?

Predictably, the VCAA is hell-bent on not solving the wrong problem. It simply doesn’t matter that not more students continue with mathematics in Year 12. What matters is that so many students learn bugger all mathematics in the previous twelve years. And why should anyone believe that, at that final stage of schooling, one more year of Maths-Lite will make any significant difference?

The problem with Year 12 that the VCAA should be attempting to solve is that so few students are choosing the more advanced mathematics subjects. Heffernan appears to have interviewed AMSI Director Tim Brown, who noted the obvious, that introducing the new subject “would not arrest the worrying decline of students studying higher level maths – specialist maths – in year 12.” (Tim could have added that Year 12 Specialist Mathematics is also a second rate subject, but one can expect only so much from AMSI.)

It is not clear that anybody other than the VCAA sees any wisdom in their plan. Professor Brown’s extended response to Heffernan is one of quiet exasperation. The comments that follow Heffernan’s report are less quiet and are appropriately scathing. So who, if anyone, did the VCAA find to endorse this distracting silliness?

But, is it worse than silly? VCAA’s new subject won’t offer significant improvement, but could it make matters worse? According to Heffernan, there’s nothing to worry about:

“The new subject will be carefully designed to discourage students from downgrading their maths study.”

Maybe. We doubt it.

Ms. Heffernan appears to be a younger reporter, so we’ll be so forward as to offer her a word of advice: if you’re going to transcribe tendentious and self-serving claims provided by the primary source for and the subject of your report, it is accurate, and prudent, to avoid reporting those claims as if they were established fact.

Implicit Suggestions

One of the unexpected and rewarding aspects of having started this blog is being contacted out of the blue by students. This included an extended correspondence with one particular VCE student, whom we have never met and of whom we know very little, other than that this year they undertook UMEP mathematics (Melbourne University extension). The student emailed again recently, about the final question on this year’s (calculator-free) Specialist Mathematics Exam 1 (not online). Though perhaps not (but also perhaps yes) a WitCH, the exam question (below), and the student’s comments (belower), seemed worth sharing.

Hi Marty,

Have a peek at Question 10 of Specialist 2019 Exam 1 when you get a chance. It was a 5 mark question, only roughly 2 of which actually assessed relevant Specialist knowledge – the rest was mechanical manipulation of ugly fractions and surds. Whilst I happened to get the right answer, I know of talented others who didn’t.

I saw a comment you made on the blog regarding timing sometime recently, and I couldn’t agree more. I made more stupid mistakes than I would’ve liked on the Specialist exam 2, being under pressure to race against the clock. It seems honestly pathetic to me that VCAA can only seem to differentiate students by time. (Especially when giving 2 1/2 hours for science subjects, with no reason why they can’t do the same for Maths.) It truly seems a pathetic way to assess or distinguish between proper mathematical talent and button-pushing speed writing.

I definitely appreciate the UMEP exams. We have 3 hrs and no CAS! That, coupled with the assignments that expect justification and insight, certainly makes me appreciate maths significantly more than from VCE. My only regret on that note was that I couldn’t do two UMEP subjects 🙂

UPDATE (22/4) The examination report has appeared.


A Loss of Momentum

The VCE maths exams are over for another year. They were mostly uneventful, the familiar concoction of triviality, nonsense and weirdness, with the notable exception of the surprisingly good Methods Exam 1. At least two Specialist questions, however, deserve a specific slap and some discussion. (There may be other questions worth whacking: we never have the stomach to give VCE exams a close read.)

Question 6 on Specialist Exam 1 concerns a particle acted on by a force, and students are asked to

Find the change in momentum in kg ms-2 …


The problem of course is that the suggested units are for force rather than momentum. This is a straight-out error and there’s not much to be said (though see below).

Then there’s Question 3 on part 2 of Specialist Exam 2. This question is concerned with a fountain, with water flowing in from a jet and flowing out at the bottom. The fountaining is distractingly irrelevant, reminiscent of a non-flying bee, but we have larger concerns.

In part (c)(i) of the question students are required to show that the height h of the water in the fountain is governed by the differential equation 

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d}h}{{\rm d}t} = \frac{4 - 5\sqrt{h}}{25\pi\left(4h^2 + 1\right)}\,.}\]

The problem is with the final part (f) of the question, where students are asked

How far from the top of the fountain does the water level ultimately stabilise?

The question is typical in its clumsy and opaque wording. One could have asked more simply for the depth h of the water, which would at least have cleared the way for students to consider the true weirdness of the question: what is meant by “ultimately stabilise”?

The examiners are presumably expecting students to set dh/dt = 0, to obtain the constant, equilibrium solution (and then to subtract the equilibrium value from the height of the fountain because why not give students the opportunity to blow half their marks by misreading a convoluted question?) The first problem with that is, as we have pointed out before, equilibria of differential equations appear nowhere in the Specialist curriculum. The second problem is, as we have pointed out before, not all equilibria are stable.

It would be smart and good if the VCAA decided to include equilibrium solutions in the Specialist curriculum, along with some reasonable analysis and application. Until they do, however, questions such as the above are unfair and absurd, made all the more unfair and absurd by the inevitably awful wording.


Now, what to make of these two questions? How much should VCAA be hammered?

We’re not so concerned about the momentum error. It is unfortunate, it would have confused many students and it shouldn’t have happened, but a typo is a typo, without deeper meaning.

It appears that Specialist teachers have been less forgiving, and fair enough: the VCAA examiners are notoriously nitpicky, sanctimonious and unapologetic, so they can hardly complain if the same, with greater justification, is done to them. (We also heard of some second-guessing, some suggestions that the units of “change in momentum” could be or are the same as the units of force. This has to be Stockholm syndrome.)

The fountain question is of much greater concern because it exemplifies systemic issues with the curriculum and the manner in which it is examined. Above all, assessment must be fair and reasonable, which means students and teachers must be clearly told what is examinable and how it may be examined. As it stands, that is simply not the case, for either Specialist or Methods.

Notably, however, we have heard of essentially no complaints from Specialist teachers regarding the fountain question; just one teacher pointed out the issue to us. Undoubtedly there were other teachers bothered by the question, but the relative silence in comparison to the vocal complaints on the momentum typo is stark. And unfortunate.

There is undoubted satisfaction in nitpicking the VCAA in a sauce for the goose manner. But a typo is a typo, and teachers shouldn’t engage in small-time point-scoring any more than VCAA examiners.

The real issue is that the current curriculum is shallow, aimless, clunky, calculator-poisoned, effectively undefined and effectively unexaminable. All of that matters infinitely more than one careless mistake.

Update (24/02/19)

The exam Reports are now out, here and here. There’s no stupidity so large or so small that the VCAA won’t remain silent.

Fixations and Madness

Our sixth and final post on the 2017 VCE exam madness is on some recurring nonsense in Mathematical Methods. The post will be relatively brief, since a proper critique of every instance of the nonsense would be painfully long, and since we’ve said it all before.

The mathematical problem concerns, for a given function f, finding the solutions to the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{(1)\qquad\qquad f(x) \ = \ f^{-1}(x)\,.}\]

This problem appeared, in various contexts, on last month’s Exam 2 in 2017 (Section B, Questions 4(c) and 4(i)), on the Northern Hemisphere Exam 1 in 2017 (Questions 8(b) and 8(c)), on Exam 2 in 2011 (Section 2, Question 3(c)(ii)), and on Exam 2 in 2010 (Section 2, Question 1(a)(iii)).

Unfortunately, the technique presented in the three Examiners’ Reports for solving equation (1) is fundamentally wrong. (The Reports are here, here and here.) In synch with this wrongness, the standard textbook considers four misleading examples, and its treatment of the examples is infused with wrongness (Chapter 1F). It’s a safe bet that the forthcoming Report on the 2017 Methods Exam 2 will be plenty wrong.

What is the promoted technique? It is to ignore the difficult equation above, and to solve instead the presumably simpler equation

    \[ \boldsymbol{(2) \qquad\qquad  f(x) \ = \  x\,,}\]

or perhaps the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{(2)' \qquad\qquad f^{-1}(x)\ = \ x \,.}\]

Which is wrong.

It is simply not valid to assume that either equation (2) or (2)’ is equivalent to (1). Yes, as long as the inverse of f exists then equation (2)’ is equivalent to equation (2): a solution x to (2)’ will also be a solution to (2), and vice versa. And, yes, then any solution to (2) and (2)’ will also be a solution to (1). The converse, however, is in general false: a solution to (1) need not be a solution to (2) or (2)’.

It is easy to come up with functions illustrating this, or think about the graph above, or look here.

OK, the VCAA might argue that the exams (and, except for a couple of up-in-the-attic exercises, the textbook) are always concerned with functions for which solving (2) or (2)’ happens to suffice, so what’s the problem? The problem is that this argument would be idiotic.

Suppose that we taught students that roots of polynomials are always integers, instructed the students to only check for integer solutions, and then carefully arranged for the students to only encounter polynomials with integer solutions. Clearly, that would be mathematical and pedagogical crap. The treatment of equation (1) in Methods exams, and the close to universal treatment in Methods more generally, is identical.

OK, the VCAA might continue to argue that the students have their (stupifying) CAS machines at hand, and that the graphs of the particular functions under consideration make clear that solving (2) or (2)’ suffices. There would then be three responses:

(i) No one tests whether Methods students do anything like a graphical check, or anything whatsoever.

(ii) Hardly any Methods students do do anything. The overwhelming majority of students treat equations (1), (2) and (2)’ as automatically equivalent, and they have been given explicit license by the Examiners’ Reports to do so. Teachers know this and the VCAA knows this, and any claim otherwise is a blatant lie. And, for any reader still in doubt about what Methods students actually do, here’s a thought experiment: imagine the 2018 Methods exam requires students to solve equation (1) for the function f(x) = (x-2)/(x-1), and then imagine the consequences.

(iii) Even if students were implicitly or explicitly arguing from CAS graphics, “Look at the picture” is an absurdly impoverished way to think about or to teach mathematics, or pretty much anything. The power of mathematics is to be able take the intuition and to either demonstrate what appears to be true, or demonstrate that the intuition is misleading. Wise people are wary of the treachery of images; the VCAA, alas, promotes it.

The real irony and idiocy of this situation is that, with natural conditions on the function f, equation (1) is equivalent to equations (2) and (2)’, and that it is well within reach of Methods students to prove this. If, for example, f is a strictly increasing function then it can readily be proved that the three equations are equivalent. Working through and applying such results would make for excellent lessons and excellent exam questions.

Instead, what we have is crap. Every year, year after year, thousands of Methods students are being taught and are being tested on mathematical crap.

The Madness of Crowd Models

Our fifth and penultimate post on the 2017 VCE exam madness concerns Question 3 of Section B on the Northern Hemisphere Specialist Mathematics Exam 2. The question begins with the logistic equation for the proportion P of a petri dish covered by bacteria:

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= \frac{P}{2}\left(1 - P\right)\,\qquad 0 < P < 1\,.}\]

This is not a great start, since it’s a little peculiar using the logistic equation to model an area proportion, rather than a population or a population density. It’s also worth noting that the strict inequalities on P are unnecessary and rule out of consideration the equilibrium (constant) solutions P = 0 and P = 1.

Clunky framing aside, part (a) of Question 3 is pretty standard, requiring the solving of the above (separable) differential equation with initial condition P(0) = 1/2. So, a decent integration problem trivialised by the presence of the stupifying CAS machine. After which things go seriously off the rails.

The setting for part (b) of the question has a toxin added to the petri dish at time t = 1, with the bacterial growth then modelled by the equation

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= \frac{P}{2}\left(1 - P\right) - \frac{\sqrt{P}}{20}\,.}\]

Well, probably not. The effect of toxins is most simply modelled as depending linearly on P, and there seems to be no argument for the square root. Still, this kind of fantasy modelling is par for the VCAA‘s crazy course. Then, however, comes Question 3(b):

Find the limiting value of P, which is the maximum possible proportion of the Petri dish that can now be covered by the bacteria.

The question is a mess. And it’s wrong.

The Examiners’ “Report” (which is not a report at all, but merely a list of short answers) fails to indicate what students did or how well they did on this short, 2-mark question. Presumably the intent was for students to find the limit of P by finding the maximal equilibrium solution of the differential equation. So, setting dP/dt = 0 implies that the right hand side of the differential equation is also 0. The resulting equation is not particularly nice, a quartic equation for Q = √P. Just more silly CAS stuff, then, giving the largest solution P = 0.894 to the requested three decimal places.

In principle, applying that approach here is fine. There are, however, two major problems.

The first problem is with the wording of the question: “maximum possible proportion” simply does not mean maximal equilibrium solution, nor much of anything. The maximum possible proportion covered by the bacteria is P = 1. Alternatively, if we follow the examiners and needlessly exclude = 1 from consideration, then there is no maximum possible proportion, and P can just be arbitrarily close to 1. Either way, a large initial P will decay down to the maximal equilibrium solution.

One might argue that the examiners had in mind a continuation of part (a), so that the proportion begins below the equilibrium value and then rises towards it. That wouldn’t rescue the wording, however. The equilibrium solution is still not a maximum, since the equilibrium value is never actually attained. The expression the examiners are missing, and possibly may even have heard of, is least upper bound. That expression is too sophisticated to be used on a school exam, but whose problem is that? It’s the examiners who painted themselves into a corner.

The second issue is that it is not at all obvious – indeed it can easily fail to be true – that the maximal equilibrium solution for P will also be the limiting value of P. The garbled information within question (b) is instructing students to simply assume this. Well, ok, it’s their question. But why go to such lengths to impose a dubious and impossible-to-word assumption, rather than simply asking directly for an equilibrium solution?

To clarify the issues here, and to show why the examiners were pretty much doomed to make a mess of things, consider the following differential equation:

    \[\boldsymbol{\frac{{\rm d} P}{{\rm d} t\ }= 3P - 4P^2 - \sqrt{P}\,.}\]

By setting Q = √P, for example, it is easy to show that the equilibrium solutions are P = 0 and P = 1/4. Moreover, by considering the sign of dP/dt for P above and below the equilibrium P = 1/4, it is easy to obtain a qualitative sense of the general solutions to the differential equation:

In particular, it is easy to see that the constant solution P = 1/4 is a semi-stable equilibrium: if P(0) is slightly below 1/4 then P(t) will decay to the stable equilibrium P = 0.

This type of analysis, which can readily be performed on the toxin equation above, is simple, natural and powerful. And, it seems, non-existent in Specialist Mathematics. The curriculum  contains nothing that suggests or promotes any such analysis, nor even a mention of equilibrium solutions. The same holds for the standard textbook, in which for, for example, the equation for Newton’s law of cooling is solved (clumsily), but there’s not a word of insight into the solutions.

And this explains why the examiners were doomed to fail. Yes, they almost stumbled into writing a good, mathematically rich exam question. The paper thin curriculum, however, wouldn’t permit it.


A Madness for all Seasons

Our fourth post on the  2017 VCE exam madness will be similar to our previous post: a quick whack of a straight-out error. This error was flagged by a teacher friend, David. (No, not that David.)

The 11th multiple choice question on the first Further Mathematics Exam reads as follows:

Which one of the following statistics can never be negative? 

A. the maximum value in a data set

B. the value of a Pearson correlation coefficient

C. the value of a moving mean in a smoothed time series

D. the value of a seasonal index

E. the value of a slope of a least squares line fitted to a scatterplot

Before we get started, a quick word on the question’s repeated use of the redundant “the value of”.


Now, on with answering the question.

It is pretty obvious that the statistics in A, B, C and E can all be negative, so presumably the intended answer is D. However, D is also wrong: a seasonal index can also be negative. Unfortunately the explanation of “seasonal index” in the standard textbook is lost in a jungle of non-explanation, so to illustrate we’ll work through a very simple example.

Suppose a company’s profits and losses over the four quarters of a year are as follows:

    \[ \begin{tabular} {| c | c | c | c |}\hline {\bf\phantom{S}Summer \phantom{I}} &{\bf\phantom{S}Autumn \phantom{I}} &{\bf\phantom{S}Winter \phantom{I}} &{\bf\phantom{S}Spring \phantom{I}} \\  \hline {\bf \$6000} & {\bf -\$1000} & {\bf -\$2000} & {\bf \$5000}\\ \hline \end{tabular}\]

So, the total profit over the year is $8,000, and then the average quarterly profit is $2000. The seasonal index (SI) for each quarter is then that quarter’s profit (or loss) divided by the average quarterly profit:

    \[ \begin{tabular} {| c | c | c | c |}\hline {\bf Summer SI} &{\bf Autumn SI} &{\bf Winter SI} &{\bf Spring SI} \\  \hline {\bf 3} & {\bf -0.5} & {\bf -1.0} & {\bf 2.5}\\ \hline \end{tabular}\]

Clearly this example is general, in the sense that in any scenario where the seasonal data are both positive and negative, some of the seasonal indices will be negative. So, the exam question is not merely technically wrong, with a contrived example raising issues: the question is wrong wrong.

Now, to be fair, this time the VCAA has a defense. It appears to be more common to apply seasonal indices in contexts where all the data are one sign, or to use absolute values to then consider magnitudes of deviations. It also appears that most or all examples Further students would have studied included only positive data.

So, yes, the VCAA (and the Australian Curriculum) don’t bother to clarify the definition or permitted contexts for seasonal indices. And yes, the definition in the standard textbook implicitly permits negative seasonal indices. And yes, by this definition the exam question is plain wrong. But, hopefully most students weren’t paying sufficient attention to realise that the VCAA weren’t paying sufficient attention, and so all is ok.

Well, the defense is something like that. The VCAA can work on the wording.