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Academic Decathlon to Revamp Curriculum, Cut Price of Materials

Contest: National board, responding to critics, will also reduce the number of study guides it publishes.

April 16, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — Bowing to criticism from coaches across the country, the board of directors of the U.S. Academic Decathlon announced Saturday that it will overhaul the competition's curriculum, publish fewer study guides and lower the cost of practice materials for next year's contest.

During a meeting Friday, the board also pledged to incorporate more critical-thinking questions into the exams and to improve the quality of the tests.

"Last year, we didn't quite deliver the mission we set out to deliver," said Frank Wurtzel, president-elect of the board. "We needed to refocus the program on independent research."

The board made its decision in the midst of the national finals of the competition. About 400 students, representing teams from every state, are in town for the 19th annual event. The new national champion will be announced today at an awards banquet at the San Antonio Convention Center.

Ventura County's Simi Valley High School is currently ranked third, behind teams from Texas and Wisconsin. On Friday, the Simi Valley decathletes beat 37 other teams to win the Super Quiz, a game show-style event.

Controversy about the nation's premier high school academic competition has angered many educators.

The coaches of the last two national champion schools--Moorpark in Ventura County and El Camino Real in Woodland Hills--quit last year in protest. Others threatened to follow suit if decathlon officials did not make changes for next year's contest.

Coaches nationwide recently protested that curriculum guides published by the organization were filled with errors, cost too much and encouraged rote memorization rather than higher-order thinking.

Many started letter campaigns and sent petitions to the national organization, which, as a result, assembled a task force in March to review the concerns. The task force, which included coaches, state directors and officials from the national organization, sent its recommendations to the board.

Some coaches, however, expressed support for the guides, saying schools with fewer resources were at a disadvantage without them. They also argued that it's easier to recruit team members with the guides.

The U.S. Academic Decathlon will publish an outline for the entire program by May 15. The organization will also create art slides, music CDs and complete guides for four subjects: music, literature, science and the Super Quiz.

The guides for math, economics and art will be eliminated. For those subjects, detailed outlines will be available Aug. 1.

Half of the test questions for the topics that have guides will be drawn from the guides, and half will be developed from other sources. The prices of the curriculum materials--which range from $195 to $495--will be reduced by 25%.

National Executive Director James Alvino also said the organization plans to improve the quality of the guides and to increase the number of outside experts who proofread the tests.

In fact, the national organization threw out two questions in this year's contest: one in math and one in the Super Quiz.

Judy Combs, director of the California Academic Decathlon, called the planned changes a "step in the right direction." She said she would continue to work closely with county directors and coaches on implementing them.

"Looking at the entire state of California, it is a good compromise," said Combs, who served on the task force. "I am delighted that the compromise has been met, but I am realistic enough to know it's not going to satisfy everyone."

Larry Jones, who quit coaching Moorpark High's team after its victory at the national finals last year, is one of the coaches unsatisfied by the plans.

"It's not a compromise," he said. "They still make their money, and they disregarded the input of what I think are valuable educators.

"When the students had to do the outside research, that was a full-time job," he said. "When the students got the guides and had to memorize all the material, that was a full-time job. This is twice as much work for students."

The board and the task force will both review the changes at the end of the year, officials said. President-elect Wurtzel said his goal is to expand and improve the program, and he hopes the changes will do just that.

"This strikes a greater balance," he said. "It's a good, satisfactory resolution that meets the concerns of a lot of different people who are committed to the program."

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