Top Coaches Lead Protest of Decathlon


Some of the top coaches in California are leading a protest against the national academic decathlon organization, charging that recent changes are tarnishing the nation's premier high school academic competition.

Exasperated coaches say study guides are riddled with errors, cost too much money and encourage memorization rather than critical thinking. Yet teams feel obligated to buy the guides because the tests are based on them.

Coaches from at least 10 California counties, including more than 40 from Los Angeles, accuse the U.S. Academic Decathlon of putting profits over pedagogy. They are calling on the organization to eliminate new curriculum guides and to reduce the number of errors in the exams.

The coaches of the last two national champion schools--Moorpark and El Camino Real in Woodland Hills--quit in protest. As the national contest is set to begin in San Antonio on Thursday, several more are threatening to follow suit if academic decathlon officials do not make changes for next year's contest.

"I love decathlon," said Mark Johnson, who led El Camino to the national contest three years in a row and to the championship in 1998. "But it became a joke to me. Here we were in a major competition, and we never knew if the tests were going to be correct or if the material was right."

Each year, teams receive an outline that indicates which areas to research. But in the 1998-99 school year, the national organization published two guides in art and music. And this year, it published a set of seven guides that cover all academic subjects and included most of the information on the tests.

National Executive Director James Alvino defended the guides as a way to level the playing field, saying that schools with fewer resources are at a disadvantage without the published curriculum. He also added that memorization is part of learning and that top teams usually do their own extra research anyway.

Last month, the U.S. Academic Decathlon formed a task force to investigate complaints from coaches across the country, the executive director said. The task force met in March and wrote recommendations, which have not been released and will be discussed by the national board of directors in San Antonio this Friday.

But in an attempt to cool the crisis, Alvino said the organization may base 50% of next year's test on the guides and 50% on outside research. Alvino also said next year's tests will include more critical thinking questions and won't be based on trivia.

In a newsletter to coaches, Alvino admitted that "the number of errors this year has been completely unacceptable."

The U.S. Academic Decathlon began in California in 1981 and has grown to involve 35,000 students from high schools in 40 states. Students are required to participate in interviews, give speeches, write essays and take tests in science, economics, literature, social science, art, music and math.

Judy Combs, director of California's Academic Decathlon, said she and others are urging the national organization to reconsider publishing the guides. Combs, who served on the national task force, met with several California coaches last week, and hopes a compromise can be worked out to keep them from quitting, which could threaten the state's future participation in the contest.

Combs said she wants accurate, well-written tests that do not require the students to regurgitate details. For example, students were required in one test last year to state by what mode of transportation Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi got to work, Combs said. He walked.

"Some of these questions that are asked of these kids are insults," Combs said. "I hate to see students work as hard as they do to memorize minutiae."

Coaches said they are put in the position of telling their students to put the wrong answer on a test.

Decathlon officials recalled the math guide and published a new one because of the inordinate number of mistakes. They also published an incorrect answer key for an economics practice test.

"U.S.A.D. has completely gotten away from testing students' ability to learn," said Jim Hatem, who has coached the Los Angeles High School team for 10 years. "It's come down to who can memorize the most. I love coaching and I love the kids, but I don't know how much more of this I can take."

Johnson and other coaches want decathlon officials to release the tests after the different rounds of competition so they can see if there are any mistakes.

National organizers refused to do that, but posted pages of guide corrections on their Web site, correcting dates, names, places and concepts. For example, the social studies guide printed a sentence that read: "In 1949, gold fever spread across the United States." The organization posted the corrected year, 1849, on the Web site. And in a Super Quiz guide, the national organization cites a unit of measurement, "cubic ton," which doesn't exist.

The social studies guide incorrectly said NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Commission, rather than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Coaches also accuse decathlon officials of reprinting material--almost verbatim--from original sources, such as a calculus textbook, an encyclopedia and a Web site of the St. Louis Art Museum.

Purchasing the guides also has substantially increased the cost of participating in the decathlon, coaches say. This year, the set of seven guides cost $495, the practice tests cost $295 and the online testing program cost $195. Teams could also buy sets of art slides, novels, plays and flashcards.

When the contest started, the cost was minimal, coaches said. Now, most teams spend between $800 and $1,000 to be competitive. Teams from some small schools may have to drop out because of the rise in costs, Johnson said.

Critics contend the organization has become more interested in making money than educating students.

"We don't think a nonprofit organization should be making money," said Larry Jones, former coach of Moorpark High's team, who quit in protest after last year's national championship in Orange County. "They can't get rid of the study guides because that generates the revenues. They're ripping kids off."

The national organization made about a quarter-million dollars more in profits this year because of the guides, Alvino said. That money is being used to expand the program and hire more experts to write and proofread the exams and guides, he said. No staff or board member is benefiting from the increased revenues, he said.

Alvino said the cost of the materials will be reduced by at least 10% next year.

Not all coaches believe the guides should be eliminated. Nathan Schauer, who has coached Lincoln High School's team for 12 years in downtown Los Angeles, said the guides make it easier for new schools to get involved. They also make the contest more equitable, because all the schools have the same materials.

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