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Coaches Protest Changes in Academic Decathlon


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

Coaches say study guides sold by the U.S. Academic Decathlon 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 10 California counties, including more than 40 from Los Angeles, accuse the national organization 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 High in Ventura County and El Camino Real High in the San Fernando Valley--have quit in protest. And as the national contest is set to begin Thursday in San Antonio, several more are threatening to follow suit if the organization doesn't make changes for next year's contest.

"USAD 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."

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. This year, it published a set of seven guides that cover all academic subjects and include most of the information in 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 organization 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 Friday in San Antonio.

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 questions requiring critical thinking 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. organization 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 sciences, 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 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."

In addition, some coaches said students spend almost as much time studying corrections as they did studying the material in the original guides.

Mark Johnson, who led El Camino High School to the national contest three years in a row--and to the championship in 1998--quit because of the changes.

"I love decathlon," said Johnson, who coached for eight years. "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."

Coaches said they are put in the position of telling their students to put wrong answers on a test. The organization recalled the math guide and published a new one because of the number of mistakes. It also published an incorrect answer key for an economics practice test.

Johnson and other coaches want the organization to release the tests after the various rounds of competition so they can see if there were any mistakes.

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

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