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.

VCAA’s SAC of Roaming


One type of educational horror that we haven’t yet written about are SACs, those internal assignmenty-examinationy things that make every second week of Year 12 studies a living hell. It is a tricky topic since SACs are school-based, often teacher-specific, and our primary goal is to attack inept authority. In that regard, schools and beleaguered teachers are in a weird middle ground, part victim and part villain, and they already have plenty of critics. Nonetheless, SACs are the sea in which students and teachers swim (or sink), and mathematics SACs are typically appalling; the overwhelming majority of mathematics SACs that we see are pointless, anti-mathematical, error-strewn blivits. So, something has to be written about such SACs of shit. And, we have a plan.

Our hand has been forced a little, however, by an email we received from a VCE student. The student is taking Mathematical Methods CBE, the trial version of Methods that uses Mathematica instead of CAS, and the student wrote about a recent Mathematica-based SAC at their school. We then asked a teacher at the school about the SAC, and they confirmed the students’ report.

This then is the students’ story, exactly as written to me.

I’m not sure of how many other students you know that are doing CBE methods but my sac today served pretty well to show how awful things can go, so a new perspective is always welcome right?

Starting from the top, we have school-provided laptops with Mathematica preinstalled. So we go in, and we have to utilise this thing called a palette which takes control of Mathematica (I have many complaints against the palette) and downloads the SAC from some remote server. No problems here right? Well, I’d imagine 200 people simultaneously downloading an item from a server would MAYBE just MAYBE cause some congestion in the network. Hell breaks loose here, a class has their file downloaded and enters reading time while the other 4 or so classes are in utter chaos. The downloader is failing over and over while also saying it succeeded. This goes on for a good half an hour before the teachers collectively decided that the sac would be rescheduled to Thursday. The class that began reading? Oh, they just stop. God knows what they could have done, taken photos of the sac with a snipping tool, copied the files over, the possibilities are endless. This whole thing is almost appalling yet terrifying because this is what I’ll have to do at the end of the year. I’ve got a load of other concerns, among the unending variety of methods to do a question with Mathematica and how an assessors report would assign marks, to which our official VCAA quiz provided pissant “solutions” that were often wrong.

Anyway, my slightly irritated take on the abhorrent state of the CBE system, which I thought may be interesting to you.

To that, the teacher at the school added the following:

[The former Head of mathematics at the school] made a deal with the devil and agreed to the school doing Methods CBE. I don’t feel the consultation process valued the feedback from myself and other teachers – it was always going to happen despite the misgivings of other teachers. I can’t help but think that my feelings on the issue is the reason I’m not teaching Maths Methods this year (for the first time in 9 years). There are many problems with this deal – it makes my blood boil. The current head of maths is a very decent guy and has done a fantastic job dealing with the mess he inherited.

I heard that the SAC was a disaster and actually saw events unfolding from afar – like watching a car crash in slow motion. Blind Freddy could have seen what was going to happen. As I left school, I saw the VCE coordinator and the current Head of Maths running around grim faced.

All of the student’s concerns are legitimate. Furthermore, the SAC was meant to run until 4.45 pm, so many students will have made alternative and inconvenient arrangements to accommodate this and now they have to do it all over again. Not to mention what it’s done to the stress levels of many students. Not to mention the time and resources that had to be expended re-writing the SAC. At every stage VCAA have washed their hands of CBE problems and left the school to do its dirty work, using the students as the guinea pigs.

Further,

1. The palette provided by VCAA had a bug.

2. The VCAA server failed. VCAA are trying to blame the school for both errors and no apology has been given. Re: The server fail. VCAA said that the school should have downloaded from the server prior to the SAC starting (which is not practical). VCAA are saying everything worked fine at the other CBE schools (which all have small student cohorts as opposed to our school’s cohort of over 200, which makes a big difference).

That’s it. Our own point of view is that SACs are all but guaranteed to be awful and Mathematica in the classroom is all but guaranteed to be awful. Here, however, those predictable awfulnesses are beside the point. The point here is VCAA’s Trumplike level of incompetence combined with VCAA’s Trumplike unwillingness to accept responsibility.