Maths exam paper errors add up, sparking calls for an overhaul

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Teachers, students and mathematics academics are pushing for more oversight of year 12 exam design to prevent errors in questions, as the number of mistakes on papers so far this year hit seven when a typo was found in the state’s second specialist mathematics test.

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) on Tuesday apologised to schools and students over the latest error – an incorrectly labelled diagram in the exam’s final question.

At least seven errors have been identified across VCE mathematics exams this year. Credit: iStock

“The VCAA has determined that the error means that the question is no longer valid and has made the decision to award all students who attempted the exam a correct score for this question,” it said.

“This was the most effective and appropriate way to ensure no student will be disadvantaged and that the assessment process is fair, valid and reliable.”

It is the second instance this year of students receiving a bonus point because of an error in an exam question. Thousands of general maths students will get a point because there was a superfluous number in a column in a question in that subject’s second test paper last week.

School communities are increasingly frustrated at the accuracy of VCE exam papers after errors in the wording of problems in the general maths and mathematical methods exams were identified.

The superfluous number in question 9d of the 2023 VCE general maths exam last week.

While dissecting the second specialist mathematics examination on Monday afternoon, teachers and students noted the final one-mark question included a graph that had been mislabelled.

Some specialist mathematics students pointed out the issue in online forums. They also noted that they found the formatting of code in another one of the paper’s questions confusing.

One year 12 student who sat the specialist maths exam on Monday – speaking to this masthead on condition of anonymity – said there should be better methods for the VCAA to safeguard exams against errors.

“It’s weird that these errors get through when they are found by many students in the paper,” he said.

The discovery of the latest error came as more than 60 mathematics academics wrote an open letter to state Education Minister Ben Carroll urging a revamp of the process for setting and vetting the papers and seeking further investigation into five errors in 2022 papers.

Last year, teachers and students identified potential errors in the VCE specialist maths exam, including a multiple-choice question that experts and students said potentially had three correct answers but in which they were required to find just one.

In a critique published on their Bad Mathematics blog, Monash academics professor Burkard Polster and Dr Marty Ross described the production, grading and reporting of 2022 VCE maths exams as “grossly deficient”.

Polster, a co-author of the open letter, said on Tuesday that while the mistakes this year had been minor compared with those on last year’s papers, they could still have cost students time.

“Some people will not have noticed [the error]. Others will have lost a lot of time and composure on this,” he said.

Polster and Ross argue mathematicians should be more involved in vetting the content of maths exams before they get to students.

“Anybody who takes the job [of a mathematician] seriously would pick up these mistakes,” he said.

One Victorian year 12 maths teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were still teaching the subject, said mistakes on exam papers could affect those students who were most familiar with the subject material.

“The people that do notice [mistakes] are the brightest students. It is quite distressing for them – they know their material back to front. They then have to second-guess the question.”

The teacher said it would be worth reviewing how the tests were checked before they were given to students.

In response to the open letter, Carroll said he had directed the VCAA board chair to work with his department to review the authority’s policies after the mistakes.

A spokesperson for the VCAA said: “The VCAA board chair will work with the department to undertake a specific review of the mathematical examination content to ensure that the mathematics in future examinations meets the highest possible standard.”

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