There’s Madness in the Methods

Yes, we’ve used that title before, but it’s a damn good title. And there is so much madness in Mathematical Methods to cover. And not only Methods. Victoria’s VCE exams are coming to an end, the maths exams are done, and there is all manner of new and astonishing nonsense to consider. This year, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority have outdone themselves.

Over the next week we’ll put up a series of posts on significant errors in the 2017 Methods, Specialist Maths and Further Maths exams, including in the mid-year Northern Hemisphere examsBy “significant error” we mean more than just a pointless exercise in button-pushing, or tone-deaf wording, or idiotic pseudomodelling, or aimless pedantry, all of which is endemic in VCE maths exams. A “significant error” in an exam question refers to a fundamental mathematical flaw with the phrasing, or with the intended answer, or with the (presumed or stated) method that students were supposed to use. Not all the errors that we shall discuss are large, but they are all definite errors, they are errors that would have (or at least should have) misled some students, and none of these errors should have occurred. (It is courtesy of diligent (and very annoyed) maths teachers that I learned of most of these questions.) Once we’ve documented the errors, we’ll post on the reasons that the errors are so prevalent, on the pedagogical and administrative climate that permits and encourages them.

Our first post concerns Exam 1 of Mathematical Methods. In the final question, Question 9, students consider the function \boldsymbol{ f(x) =\sqrt{x}(1-x)} on the closed interval [0,1], pictured below. In part (b), students are required to show that, on the open interval (0,1), “the gradient of the tangent to the graph of f” is (1-3x)/(2\sqrt{x}). A clumsy combination of calculation and interpretation, but ok. The problem comes when students then have to consider tangents to the graph.

In part (c), students take the angle θ in the picture to be 45 degrees. The pictured tangents then have slopes 1 and -1, and the students are required to find the equations of these two tangents. And therein lies the problem: it turns out that the “derivative”  of f is equal to -1 at the endpoint x = 1. However, though the natural domain of the function \sqrt{x}(1-x)} is [0,∞), the students are explicitly told that the domain of f is [0,1].

This is obvious and unmitigated madness.

Before we hammer the madness, however, let’s clarify the underlying mathematics.

Does the derivative/tangent of a suitably nice function exist at an endpoint? It depends upon who you ask. If the “derivative” is to exist then the standard “first principles” definition must be modified to be a one-sided limit. So, for our function f above, we would define

    \[f'(1) = \lim_{h\to0^-}\frac{f(1+h) - f(1)}{h}\,.\]

This is clearly not too difficult to do, and with this definition we find that f'(1) = -1, as implied by the Exam question. (Note that since f naturally extends to the right of =1, the actual limit computation can be circumvented.) However, and this is the fundamental point, not everyone does this.

At the university level it is common, though far from universal, to permit differentiability at the endpoints. (The corresponding definition of continuity on a closed interval is essentially universal, at least after first year.) At the school level, however, the waters are much muddier. The VCE curriculum and the most popular and most respected Methods textbook appear to be completely silent on the issue. (This textbook also totally garbles the related issue of derivatives of piecewise defined (“hybrid”) functions.) We suspect that the vast majority of Methods teachers are similarly silent, and that the minority of teachers who do raise the issue would not in general permit differentiability at an endpoint.

In summary, it is perfectly acceptable to permit derivatives/tangents to graphs at their endpoints, and it is perfectly acceptable to proscribe them. It is also perfectly acceptable, at least at the school level, to avoid the issue entirely, as is done in the VCE curriculum, by most teachers and, in particular, in part (b) of the Exam question above.

What is blatantly unacceptable is for the VCAA examiners to spring a completely gratuitous endpoint derivative on students when the issue has never been raised. And what is pure and unadulterated madness is to spring an endpoint derivative after carefully and explicitly avoiding it on the immediately previous part of the question.

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has a long tradition of scoring own goals. The question above, however, is spectacular. Here, the VCAA is like a goalkeeper grasping the ball firmly in both hands, taking careful aim, and flinging the ball into his own net.

The Treachery of Images

Harry scowled at a picture of a French girl in a bikini. Fred nudged Harry, man-to-man. “Like that, Harry?” he asked.

“Like what?”

“The girl there.”

“That’s not a girl. That’s a piece of paper.”

“Looks like a girl to me.” Fred Rosewater leered.

“Then you’re easily fooled,” said Harry. It’s done with ink on a piece of paper. That girl isn’t lying there on the counter. She’s thousands of miles away, doesn’t even know we’re alive. If this was a real girl, all I’d have to do for a living would be to stay at home and cut out pictures of big fish.”

                       Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater


It is fundamental to be able to distinguish appearance from reality. That it is very easy to confuse the two is famously illustrated by Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des Images):

The danger of such confusion is all the greater in mathematics. Mathematical images, graphs and the like, have intuitive appeal, but these images are mere illustrations of deep and easily muddied ideas. The danger of focussing upon the image, with the ideas relegated to the shadows, is a fundamental reason why the current emphasis on calculators and graphical software is so misguided and so insidious.

Which brings us, once again, to Mathematical Methods. Question 5 on Section Two of the second 2015 Methods exam is concerned with the function V:[0,5]\rightarrow\Bbb R, where

\phantom{\quad}  V(t) = de^{\frac{t}3} + (10-d)e^{\frac{-2t}3}\,.

Here, d \in (0,10) is a constant, with d=2 initially; students are asked to find the minimum (which occurs at t = \log_e8), and to graph V. All this is par for the course: a reasonable calculus problem thoroughly trivialised by CAS calculators. Predictably, things get worse.

In part (c)(i) of the problem students are asked to find “the set of possible values of d” for which the minimum of V occurs at t=0. (Part (c)(ii) similarly, and thus boringly and pointlessly, asks for which d the minimum occurs at t=5). Arguably, the set of possible values of d is (0,10), which of course is not what was intended; the qualification “possible” is just annoying verbiage, in which the examiners excel.

So, on to considering what the students were expected to have done for (c)(ii), a 2-mark question, equating to three minutes. The Examiners’ Report pointedly remarks that “[a]dequate working must be shown for questions worth more than one mark.” What, then, constituted “adequate working” for 5(c)(i)? The Examiners’ solution consists of first setting V'(0)=0 and solving to give d=20/3, and then … well, nothing. Without further comment, the examiners magically conclude that the answer to (c)(i) is 20/3 \leqslant d< 10.

Only in the Carrollian world of Methods could the examiners’ doodles be regarded as a summary of or a signpost to any adequate solution. In truth, the examiners have offered no more than a mathematical invocation, barely relevant to the question at hand: why should V having a stationary point at t=0 for d=20/3 have any any bearing on V for other values of d? The reader is invited to attempt a proper and substantially complete solution, and to measure how long it takes. Best of luck completing it within three minutes, and feel free to indicate how you went in the comments.

It is evident that the vast majority of students couldn’t make heads or tails of the question, which says more for them than the examiners. Apparently about half the students solved V'(0)=0 and included d = 20/3 in some form in their answer, earning them one mark. Very few students got further; 4% of students received full marks on the question (and similarly on (c)(ii)).

What did the examiners actually hope for? It is pretty clear that what students were expected to do, and the most that students could conceivably do in the allotted time, was: solve V'(0)=0 (i.e. press SOLVE on the machine); then, look at the graphs (on the machine) for two or three values of d; then, simply presume that the graphs of V for all d are sufficiently predictable to “conclude” that 20/3 is the largest value of d for which the (unique) turning point of V lies in [0,5]. If it is not immediately obvious that any such approach is mathematical nonsense, the reader is invited to answer (c)(i) for the function W:[0,5]\rightarrow\Bbb R where W(t) = (6-d)t^2 + (d-2)t.

Once upon a time, Victorian Year 12 students were taught mathematics, were taught to prove things. Now, they’re taught to push buttons and to gaze admiringly at pictures of big fish.

NAPLAN’s Mathematical Nonsense, and What it Means for Rural Peru

The following question appeared on Australia’s Year 9 NAPLAN Numeracy Test in 2009:

y = 2x – 1

y = 3x + 2

Which value of x satisfies both of these equations?

It is a multiple choice question, but unfortunately “The question is completely stuffed” is not one of the available answers.

Of course the fundamental issue with simultaneous equations is the simultaneity. Both equations and both variables must be considered as a whole, it simply making no sense to talk about solutions for x without reference to y. Unless y = -7 in the above equations, and there is no reason to assume that, then no value of x satisfies both equations. The NAPLAN question is way beyond bad.

It is always worthwhile pointing out NAPLAN nonsense, as we’ve done before and will continue to do in the future. But what does this have to do with rural Peru?

In a recent post we pointed out an appalling question from a nationwide mathematics exam in New Zealand. We flippantly remarked that one might expect such nonsense in rural Peru but not in a wealthy Western country such as New Zealand. We were then gently slapped in the comments for the Peruvian references: Josh queried whether we knew anything of Peru’s educational system; and, Dennis questioned the purpose of bringing up Peru, since Australia’s NAPLAN demonstrates a “level of stupidity” for all the World to see. These are valid points.

It would have been prudent to have found out a little about Peru before posting, but we seem to be safe. Peru’s economy has been growing rapidly but is not nearly as strong as New Zealand’s or Australia’s. Peruvian school education is weak, and Peru seems to have no universities comparable to the very good universities in New Zealand and Australia. Life and learning in rural Peru appears to be pretty tough.

None of this is surprising, and none of it particularly matters. Our blog post referred to “rural Peru or wherever”. The point was that we can expect poorer education systems to throw up nonsense now and then, or even typically; in particular, lacking ready access to good and unharried mathematicians, it is unsurprising if exams and such are mathematically poor and error-prone.

But what could possibly be New Zealand’s excuse for that idiotic question? Even if the maths ed crowd didn’t know what they were doing, there is simply no way that a competent mathematician would have permitted that question to remain as is, and there are plenty of excellent mathematicians in New Zealand. How did a national exam in New Zealand fail to be properly vetted? Where were the mathematicians?

Which brings us to Australia and to NAPLAN. How could the ridiculous problem at the top of this post, or the question discussed here, make it into a nationwide test? Once again: where were the mathematicians?

One more point. When giving NAPLAN a thoroughly deserved whack, Dennis was not referring to blatantly ill-formed problems of the type above, but rather to a systemic and much more worrying issue. Dennis noted that NAPLAN doesn’t offer a mathematics test or an arithmetic test, but rather a numeracy test. Numeracy is pedagogical garbage and in the true spirit of numeracy, NAPLAN’s tests include no meaningful evaluation of arithmetic or algebraic skills. And, since we’re doing the Peru thing, it seems worth noting that numeracy is undoubtedly a first world disease. It is difficult to imagine a poorer country, one which must weigh every educational dollar and every educational hour, spending much time on numeracy bullshit.

Finally, a general note about this blog. It would be simple to write amusing little posts about this or that bit of nonsense in, um, rural Peru or wherever. That, however, is not the purpose of this blog. We have no intention of making easy fun of people or institutions honestly struggling in difficult circumstances; that includes the vast majority of Australian teachers, who have to tolerate and attempt to make sense of all manner of nonsense flung at them from on high. Our purpose is to point out the specific idiocies of arrogant, well-funded educational authorities that have no excuse for screwing up in the manner in which they so often do.

Factoring in the Stupidity

It is very brave to claim that one has found the stupidest maths exam question of all time. And the claim is probably never going to be true: there will always be some poor education system, in rural Peru or wherever, doing something dumber than anything ever done before. For mainstream exams in wealthy Western countries, however, New Zealand has come up with something truly exceptional.

Last year, New Zealand students at Year 11 sat one of two algebra exams administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. The very first question on the second exam reads:

A rectangle has an area of  \bf x^2+5x-36. What are the lengths of the sides of the rectangle in terms of  \bf x.

The real problem here is to choose the best answer, which we can probably all agree is sides of length \pi and (x^2+5x-36)/\pi.

OK, clearly what was intended was for students to factorise the quadratic and to declare the factors as the sidelengths of the rectangle. Which is mathematical lunacy. It is simply wrong.

Indeed, the question would arguably still have been wrong, and would definitely still have been awful, even if it had been declared that x has a unit of length: who wants students to be thinking that the area of a rectangle uniquely determines its sidelengths? But, even that tiny sliver of sense was missing.

So, what did students do with this question? (An equivalent question, 3(a)(i), appeared on the first exam.) We’re guessing that, seeing no alternative, the majority did exactly what was intended and factorised the quadratic. So, no harm done? Hah! It is incredible that such a question could make it onto a national exam, but it gets worse.

The two algebra exams were widely and strongly criticised, by students and teachers and the media. People complained that the exams were too difficult and too different in style from what students and teachers had been led to expect. Both types of criticism may well have been valid. For all of the public criticism of the exams, however, we could find no evidence of the above question or its Exam 1 companion being flagged. Plenty of complaining about hard questions, plenty of complaining about unexpected questions, but not a word about straight out mathematical crap.

So, not only do questions devoid of mathematical sense appear on a nationwide exam. It then appears that the entire nation of students is being left to accept that this is what mathematics is: meaningless autopilot calculation. Well done, New Zealand. You’ve made the education authorities in rural Peru feel very much better about themselves.

The Median is the Message

Our first post concerns an error in the 2016 Mathematical Methods Exam 2 (year 12 in Victoria, Australia). It is not close to the silliest mathematics we’ve come across, and not even the silliest error to occur in a Methods exam. Indeed, most Methods exams are riddled with nonsense. For several reasons, however, whacking this particular error is a good way to begin: the error occurs in a recent and important exam; the error is pretty dumb; it took a special effort to make the error; and the subsequent handling of the error demonstrates the fundamental (lack of) character of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

The problem, first pointed out to us by teacher and friend John Kermond, is in Section B of the exam and concerns Question 3(h)(ii). This question relates to a probability distribution with “probability density function”

    \[  f(x) =   \left\{\aligned &\frac{(210-x)e^{\frac{x-210}{20}}}{400} \qquad && 0\leqslant x \leqslant 210,\\ &0 && \text{elsewhere.} \endaligned\right.}\]

Now, anyone with a good nose for calculus is going to be thinking “uh-oh”. It is a fundamental property of a PDF that the total integral (underlying area) should equal 1. But how are all those integrated powers of e going to cancel out? Well, they don’t. What has been defined is only approximately a PDF,  with a total area of 1 - 23/2e^{21/2} \approx 0.9997. (It is easy to calculate the area exactly using integration by parts.)

Below we’ll discuss the absurdity of handing students a non-PDF, but back to the exam question. 3(h)(ii) asks the students to find the median of the “probability distribution”, correct to two decimal places. Since the question makes no sense for a non-PDF, of course the VCAA have shot themself in the foot. However, we can still attempt to make some sense of the question, which is when we discover that the VCAA has also shot themself in the other foot.

The median m of a probability distribution is the half-way point. So, in the integration context here we want the m for which

a)      \phantom{\quad}  \int\limits_0^m f(x)\,{\rm d}x = \dfrac12.

As such, this question was intended to be just another CAS exercise, and so both trivial and pointless: push the button, write down the answer and on to the next question. The problem is, the median can also be determined by the equation

b)     \phantom{\quad}  \int\limits_m^{210} f(x)\,{\rm d}x = \dfrac12,

or by the equation

c)     \phantom{\quad} \int\limits_0^m f(x)\,{\rm d}x = \int\limits_m^{210} f(x)\,{\rm d}x.

And, since our function is only approximately a PDF, these three equations necessarily give three different answers: to the demanded two decimal places the answers are respectively 176.45, 176.43 and 176.44. Doh!

What to make of this? There are two obvious questions.

1. How did the VCAA end up with a PDF which isn’t a PDF?

It would be astonishing if all of the exam’s writers and checkers failed to notice the integral was not 1. It is even more astonishing if all the writers-checkers recognised and were comfortable with a non-PDF. Especially since the VCAA can be notoriously, absurdly fussy about the form and precision of answers (see below).

2. How was the error in 3(h)(ii) not detected?

It should have been routine for this mistake to have been detected and corrected with any decent vetting. Yes, we all make mistakes. Mistakes in very important exams, however, should not be so common, and the VCAA seems to make a habit of it.

OK, so the VCAA stuffed up. It happens. What happened next? That’s where the VCAA’s arrogance and cowardice shine bright for all to see. The one and only sentence in the Examiners’ Report that remotely addresses the error is:

“As [the] function f  is a close approximation of the [???] probability density function, answers to the nearest integer were accepted”. 

The wording is clumsy, and no concession has been made that the best (and uniquely correct) answer is “The question is stuffed up”, but it seems that solutions to all of a), b) and c) above were accepted. The problem, however, isn’t with the grading of the question.

It is perhaps too much to expect an insufferably arrogant VCAA to apologise, to express anything approximating regret for yet another error. But how could the VCAA fail to understand the necessity of a clear and explicit acknowledgement of the error? Apart from demonstrating total gutlessness, it is fundamentally unprofessional. How are students and teachers, especially new teachers, supposed to read the exam question and report? How are students and teachers supposed to approach such questions in the future? Are they still expected to employ the precise definitions that they have learned? Or, are they supposed to now presume that near enough is good enough?

For a pompous finale, the Examiners’ Report follows up by snarking that, in writing the integral for the PDF, “The dx was often missing from students’ working”. One would have thought that the examiners might have dispensed with their finely honed prissiness for that one paragraph. But no. For some clowns it’s never the wrong time to whine about a missing dx.

UPDATE (16 June): In the comments below, Terry Mills has made the excellent point that the prior question on the exam is similarly problematic. 3(h)(i) asks students to calculate the mean of the probability distribution, which would normally be calculated as \int xf(x)\,{\rm d}x. For our non-PDF, however, we should should normalise by dividing by \int f(x)\,{\rm d}x. To the demanded two decimal places, that changes the answer from the Examiners’ Report’s 170.01 to 170.06.