This one puzzled us when we gave the 2021 Further Mathematics Exams a three-minute scan, but we didn’t bother then to think, um, further. Now, however, since graph theory is likely a mandatory part of Specialist 1&2, and thus also, at least technically, a mandatory part of Specialist 3&4, we have thought a little harder. So, after discussions with John Friend and with a colleague who we shall refer to as Professor Combo, here we are.

By overwhelming demand,* we have decided, much belatedly, to put up a post for discussion of the 2021 Further Mathematics exams. We have no particular plans to update this post, although we will do so if anything of interest arises. We’ll just note the two excerpts below, from Exam 2, the first of which is discussed here, at 5:30. Thanks to Simon and SRK to bringing these to our attention.**

MCQ4 (added 23/09/20) The question provides a histogram for a continuous distribution (bird beak sizes), and asks for the “closest” of five listed values to the interquartile range. As the examination report almost acknowledges (presumably in time for the grading), this cannot be determined from the histogram; three of the listed values may be closest, depending upon the precise distribution. The report suggests one of these values as the “best” estimate, but does not rely upon this suggestion. See the comments below.

Q1(c)(ii) (added 13/11/20) – discussed here. The question is fundamentally nonsense, since there are infinitely many 1 x 3 matrices L that will solve the equation. As well, the 3 x 1 matrix given in the question does not represent the total value of the three products as indicated in Q(c)(i). The examination does not acknowledge either error, but does add irony to the error by whining about students incorrectly answering with a 3 x 1 matrix.

MCQ11 (added 13/11/20) – discussed here. None of the available answers is correct, since seasonal indices can be negative. The examination report does not acknowledge the error.

MCQ9 Module 2 (added 30/09/20) The question refers to cutting a wedge of cheese to make a “similar” wedge of cheese, but the new wedge is not (mathematically) similar. The exam report states that the word “similar” was intended “in its everyday sense” but noted the confusion, albeit in a weasely, “who woulda thought?” manner. A second answer was marked correct, although only after a fight over the issue.

Last week, the New South Wales government came out with the next great plan to Save Mathematics Education: make mathematics compulsory up until the end of high school. Why? According to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, this will “ensure students have the numeracy skills required to succeed in today’s society”.

Yes, of course. In exactly the same way, for example, that compulsory instruction in ethics ensures that lawyers and cops act ethically.

What’s the source for this latest nonsense? Well, it’s kind of, sort of from the Interim Report of the NSW Curriculum Review, which was released a few days earlier, and which is prominent in the Government’s media release. Like all such reports, the NSW Report is barely readable, the predictable mishmosh of pseudoscience, unweighted survey, statistics of undeterminable worth and contradictory motherhoodisms. Thankfully, there’s no reason to read the Report, since the NSW Government hasn’t bothered to read it either; nothing in the Report points to making mathematics compulsory throughout high school.

Still, it was easy enough to find “maths experts” who “applauded the move”. Jordan Baker, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s education reporter, quoted four such “experts”, although the only expert appearing to say much of substance was doing anything but applauding. Greg Ashman, who is always worth reading (especially when he is needling nitwits), pointed to the need for specialist teachers in lower years. He is then quoted:

“You need to move away from the fashion for inquiry learning and problem-based learning and instead focus on high quality, interactive, explicit teaching of mathematics. Do that, and I believe numbers in year 12 would organically grow.”

In other words, if you stop having shit teachers teaching shit maths in a shit manner in lower years then maybe more kids will choose to stick around a little longer. (Ashman is more collegial than this writer.)

The NSW government’s compulsion will undoubtedly push mathematics in the exact opposite direction, into ever more directionless playing and mathematical trivia dressed up as real world saviour. You know the stuff: figuring out credit cards and, God help us, “how to choose cancer treatment“.

To illustrate the point perfectly, Melbourne’s Age has just published one of its fun exam-time pieces. Titled “Are you smarter than a 12th grader?“, the reader was challenged to solve the following problem from yesterday’s Further Mathematics exam:

A shop sells two types of discs: CDs and DVDs. CDs are sold for $7.00 each and DVDs are sold for $13.00 each. Bonnie bought a total of 16 discs for $178.00. How many DVDS did Bonnie buy?

The question this problem raises isn’t are you smarter than a 12th grader. The real question is, are you smart enough to realise that making mathematics compulsory to 12th grade will doom way too many students to doing 7th grade mathematics for six years in a row? For the NSW government and their cheer squad of “maths experts”, the answer appears to be “No”.

Late last year we posted on Madness in the 2017 VCE mathematics exams, on blatant errors above and beyond the exams’ predictably general clunkiness. For one (Northern Hemisphere) exam, the subsequent VCAA Report had already appeared; this Report was pretty useless in general, and specifically it was silent on the error and the surrounding mathematical crap. None of the other reports had yet appeared.

Now, finally, all the exam reports are out. God only knows why it took half a year, but at least they’re out. We have already posted on one particularly nasty piece of nitpicking nonsense, and now we can review the VCAA‘s own assessment of their five errors:

Mathematical Methods Exam 1 contained an utter hash of a question, with a fundamentally misleading graph and a (for Methods) undefined endpoint derivative. The Report makes no mention of the error or the dodginess of the graph. Students scored an average of 5% on the question.

Mathematical Methods Exam 2 contained, twice, a type of question which previous years’ reports had suggested to solve invalidly. This year’s Report approaches the question validly the first time and then ducks the question with a dubious technique the second time. (More on this in a future post.) The Report makes no mention of the previously acceptable invalid approach, or whether that approach is still considered acceptable. Students scored an average of 66% on the first question (suggesting the invalid technique is secretly still acceptable) and 5% on the second.

Further Mathematics Exam 2 included an ill-posed question with erroneously transposed information. The Report makes no comment on the error. The Report does note that 72% of students received 0/1 for the question, with “many” students giving a 3 x 1 matrix rather than the correct 1 x 3, and presumably scoring 0 as a consequence. That’s pretty damn cute, given the examiners had already mixed up the rows and columns.

So, the VCAA responds to five blatant errors with five Trumpian silences. How should one describe such conduct? Unprofessional? Arrogant? Cowardly? VCAA-ish? All of the above?

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”.

Bleah!

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:

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:

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.

Our third post on the 2017 VCE exam madness will be brief, on a question containing a flagrant error.

The first question in the matrix module of Further Mathematics’ Exam 2 is concerned with a school canteen selling pies, rolls and sandwiches over three separate weeks. The number of items sold is set up as a 3 x 3 matrix, one row for each week and one column for each food choice. The last part, (c)(ii), of the question then reads:

The matrix equation below shows that the total value of all rolls and sandwiches sold in these three weeks is $915.60

Matrix L in this equation is of order 1 x 3.

Write down matrix L.

This 1-mark question is presumably meant to be a gimme, with answer L = [0 1 1]. Unfortunately the question is both weird and wrong. (And lacking in punctuation. Guys, it’s not that hard.) The wrongness comes from the examiners having confused their rows and columns. As is made clear in the the previous part, (c)(i), of the question, the 3 x 1 matrix of numbers indicates the total earnings from each of the three weeks, not from each of the three food choices. So, the equation indicates the total value of all products sold in weeks 2 and 3.

There’s not much to say about such an obvious error. It is very easy to confuse rows and columns, and we’ve all done it on occasion, but if VCAA’s vetting cannot catch this kind of mistake then it cannot be relied upon to catch anything. The only question is how the Examiners’ Report will eventually address the error. The VCAA is well-practised in cowardly silence and weasel-wording, but it would be exceptionally Trumplike to attempt such tactics here.

Error aside, the question is artificial, and it is not clear that the matrix equation “shows” much of anything. Yes, 0-1 and on-or-off matrices are important and useful, but the use of such a matrix in this context is contrived and confusing. Not a hanging offence, and benign by VCAA’s standards, but the question is pretty silly. And, not forgetting, wrong.