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.

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 …

Doh!

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.

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.