Hoo boy, has it been a doozy of a few months. I have been meaning to get back in here and start writing, more for therapeutic purposes than for academic purposes, but more things kept happening in the world of decathlon as well as my own that I kept pushing this back. I now feel comfortable coming back to this- however this first thing to do is something I owe my kids.
This post will mostly be a letter written by two of my students that was written in the aftermath of both the state competition and the rejection they received to participate at the individual national competition. It is a letter which I endorse personally and left almost entirely unedited; however, while I agree with the majority of the points they bring up, I do not agree with all of them. We took out some of the more “raw” language in order to hopefully get the points across that needed to be enunciated. I will also post separate files of sample rubric changes that we believe need to be made. The ideas we have range from small and possibly irrelevant to most, to things that should fundamentally alter how decathlon works.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”- Margaret Mead
The following is an open letter to anyone who is interested enough to listen to the observations, opinions, and suggestions of decathletes who will be graduating and unable to compete in the 2019 season. We hope that you take the time to read the entirety of our arguments before forming any concrete judgements about what we have to say. The letter is quite extensive, and its length is reflective of this fact. Despite the length, we ask that one avoids simply skimming through our arguments, and instead take the time to thoroughly read what we have to say. The contents of this letter will include gripes and problems with the current Academic Decathlon system, but we will also try to provide viable common-sense solutions to the problems addressed. We will do our best to not simply “whine” about subjectives and claim that we got screwed over by a flawed system, but to instead explain our thoughts with logic and reason. We do however still recognize that everyone is going to have their own opinion and, of course, they are entitled to that opinion. We sincerely hope that this is simply a restatement of thoughts held by the majority of the community, and that we can come together to fix a system that has been broken for many years. This letter is not meant to be divisive or to separate the community, but instead bring everyone together around positive change. That being said, this is our opinion on events that have transpired during the 2018 Academic Decathlon Competition as well as overall issues associated with the function of the competition itself and suggestions on how to amend such issues before another team is condemned to the same fate as us.
For as long as there has been an Academic Decathlon, students and coaches have been complaining about subjectives. There is no doubt that every coach has a story about how one of their students had their essay unfairly graded or how the timing was messed up in a speech room. Even though these problems are clear and out in the open, many veterans have simply accepted it as the way of things. This is easy to do when it doesn’t happen to you, “Oh look another team got screwed over by subjectives, well what can you do.” But when these problems affect scores, which determine placements, which determine scholarship awards, then these seemingly minor problems have real world impacts. When these problems affect, and even determine, who wins state championships, who can attend nationals, and which students are forced to go home disappointed and heartbroken after hours and hours of work, they can no longer be glossed over. The worst part is that the solutions are simple, obvious and could have been easily fixed years ago. The first is a mandate from USAD that all judges be trained in the same exact way. Down to the letter. Sounds simple enough, but in practice it seems to be much more difficult. Every judge needs to be shown what a 1000 speech/interview is, what a 900 speech/interview is and so on. This would hopefully minimize any discrepancies between rooms and make it so that scores are determined fairly.
The next point we would like to address is going to be a little Texas specific. This is because it is the only first-hand experience we have, but it likely applies to other states as well. The way Texas has their divisions set is by school size. The 6A schools go to one site and everyone else goes to another site. Now anyone who actively follows scores knows that while in general scores scale down from the large to the small schools, at the very top it does not matter what size the school is. Having two sites obviously means that perhaps the top two teams in the state are being judged by two completely different sets of subjective judges. These problems came to fruition this past year where the medium/small site struggled to fill their rooms with judges. This meant that in certain rooms, there was only one interview judge. Now, you could argue that this could help or hurt scores. Which is a valid point, but, there is no doubt that if enough students on one team were affected by this, it could affect overall placements. There is a reason that USAD mandates a minimum number of judges per subjective room. So why was this blatant disregard for the rules overlooked? According to the arbiter, there was no other option but to let hundreds of competitors go home. But this was definitely not the only option. Instead of going forward with one judge per room, the site director could have combined rooms, and they could have set up subjective times on the Saturday following testing so that judges did not have to work till all hours of the night on Friday. The bottom line is that to truly determine a state champion, the teams must be judged under the same conditions. There is, of course, another easy solution to this problem that has already been adopted in another state. California has already implemented a system where the schools are separated by score and not by school size. This means the best teams are sent to the same site and have subjectives judged under the same conditions, and this could even give schools with lower scores a chance to earn scholarship money. Not only should Texas Academic Decathlon adopt this practice for the upcoming year, but this should become the standard policy dictated by USAD, and not left up to individual states to decide.
While judging is certainly a consistent problem within Academic Decathlon, it is undoubtedly extremely difficult to judge subjectives. After all subjectives are just that: subjective. It is in their very nature. But subjective is not synonymous with baseless. Just because 3/10 of the events are more abstract and less objective, does not mean that it cannot be better standardized, thereby allowing for fair scores. What USAD should do to aid these volunteers, is to make the rubric clear and concise. Currently, the rubric is vague and leaves much open to interpretation. The rubric needs to specify without a shadow of a doubt how to justly grade students who have put in a year’s worth of effort in preparation. The more glaring problem with the rubric, is that the scoring system is universally considered to be just plain wrong. Currently a 7/10 is listed as “Very Good.” No student or coach would say that a 700 speech/interview score is “Very Good.” Sadly, it gets worse, a 5/10 is considered “Good”, and a “Fair” speech is listed as a 3/10. We think that everyone can agree that a speech score of 500 is not “Good”. These current scoring guidelines make it so that judges who are volunteers and do not have experience with coaching or competing believe that they are giving a student a good score, when in reality, they may be costing that student an overall placement and scholarship money. The scoring guidelines need to be completely overhauled and written by coaches, alumni, whoever, but it needs to be someone who truly understands the score a “Good” speech/interview should receive.
Now here is what everyone has been waiting for. The subjective that has perhaps caused more controversy, more distraught, and hurt more people than any other: essay. Sometimes this controversy is on a small scale, such as last year when one of our team members accidentally selected the wrong essay prompt and his essay was marked as “off topic.” To put this into perspective, despite the fact that he received a 0 for his essay, he placed 5th at the Texas 6A meet. The graders refused to reconsider their decision, which cost him a 1st place finish in the scholastic category and $3,000 worth of scholarship money. But other times the devastation caused by essay grading is much more severe. As we are sure many members of the community are aware, this past year we contested the results of the Texas State meet on the grounds that essays were improperly graded. From what we understand, this sent shockwaves throughout the community and caused heated debate across the state. No doubt harsh words have been spoken about how our decision delayed the finalization of results until a 3rd party arbiter had made his decision. We will not go completely into the details of our rationale as it involves a significant amount of calculations and theoreticals but will attempt to briefly explain why we believed the protest had to be filed. Let us first preface our explanation by saying that the difference between the final team scores was 91.8 points, approximately 0.18% of the total score. When dealing with margins that small it becomes imperative to make sure that every little detail was handled correctly. In this case, we believe that they were not handled correctly. Essay scores were abnormally inflated due to a drastic increase in the number of 900s given out by a single judge. There is evidence that this judge did not grade the essays they were assigned because virtually every school had an essay score that was arbitrarily high, and there was even one competitor on another team that received essay scores from different judges of ~15 and ~95. This 95 was simply typed in by a judge who failed to complete the job he volunteered for. These abnormally high scores boosted some essays, but deflated others. This is due to how essay is graded and how the scores are averaged when a 3rd grader is needed. Due to this, most of our counting scores dropped while the Lubbock scores were inflated. What this means, is that when the 3rd grader came in to distinguish between the insanely high score and an average one, if the score they gave was closer to high score, that student’s overall essay score went up. But if their score was closer to the lower one, that student’s score went down. There was a specific score in the middle where if the 3rd grader had given the essay 1 point higher or lower, it could have meant a swing of over 300-points for that student’s essay score. We are not saying that we are better at essay writing than Lubbock. What we are saying is that we are not bad enough to blow a ~900-point lead on it. Because that’s what happened. The lead we built on tests, speech, and interview was taken from us by, yet another example of how broken essay is and why it needs to change. Long story short, we determined that due to the substantial problems associated with how essays were graded, it was completely necessary to challenge the validity of the results.
. The perennial disaster that is essay deserves more discussion. We have already discussed how speech/interview suffer from rubric issues and essay is not exempt. The scoring guidelines need to be rewritten to reflect what the community actual considers a good score. Then, graders need to be taught how to correctly grade essays based on these new standards. The rubric needs to explain with minimal room for error the difference between a good essay and a bad one. This could be done, with examples of an essay that deserves a 900, adjacent to an essay that deserves a 700. Those numbers are mere suggestions. The important takeaway is that a standard needs to be established for what is truly an “Excellent” essay versus a “Good” essay or a “Poor” essay. Attached to this, we have included an example of what we believe to be a more appropriate rubric to judge essays with. It is, by no means, perfect. It is simply a suggestion or starting point for USAD officials should they decide to heed our advice.
To conclude our essay tirade, we would like to propose a change to the event itself. One of our students suggested that essay should be changed from one long essay to about 5 short answer questions. These could be graded as 200 points each where 150 is content and 50 is style. This would mean that if a student truly knew the material and was able to correctly answer every question, they would be guaranteed a score of 750 on essay, regardless of how they answered. The 250 points left for style/grammar would still allow those students who are exceptional writers to separate themselves from everyone else. We have created a preliminary suggestion for an evaluation form for this as well.
The reason these necessary changes are so important is because currently, the only way for a team to obtain an invitation to the Nationals Competition is to win their state. This makes the state competition vital and each of its flaws is extrapolated by its importance to the competitors who have dedicated their academic year to this competition. Winning a state title requires a great amount of devotion to Academic Decathlon, but the difficulty of doing so is dependent on the state the school is located in. Everyone can agree that winning state is more difficult in California than Texas, and more difficult in Texas than Arizona, and so on. What this does is prevent some of the best teams in the nation from being able to compete at the final competition. This year, the 2nd best team in the nation was Granada Hills; they lost to El Camino at the California State meet even though they scored over 55,000 points. They will not be able to compete in Frisco. Neither will the 3rd or 4th best teams. This is simply because they were not fortunate enough to reside in a less competitive state. Our seniors also have 1st hand experience with this feeling. We have won the Texas 6A State Championship for the past two years, however because there was a team competing in the medium school division who scored higher both years, we have been unable to represent ourselves and our school at the National competition. Although we were a top 10 team both years, our season ended in February. This limits the teams who could win a national championship to those who peak early or perhaps get lucky at one event at one meet. The difference between Granada and ECR at their meet in late March was ~ 900 points. If Granada could go to Nationals, their subs could go up, and El Camino’s could go down. Despite the fact that they lost the state meet, they could win a National Championship. Before the start of the 2018 season, USAD announced that it would be opening a new division at the Nationals Competition known as Division IV. The way this division works is that the team that won its in-state division, but not the overall state title would be invited to compete at Nationals. This idea works in theory, but let’s look at Texas as an example. The overall state champion was Lubbock High School, that means that the division IV team would be Lebanon Trail who won the small division. Our only grievance with this is that their overall state placement was 28th. That means there are 26 other teams just within the state of Texas (including us) who deserve to attend nationals more than they do. It simply does not make sense to us why a team that scores about 8,000 points below us, is allowed to compete when we are not. We understand that they competed in a different division and perhaps comparing their score to ours is unfair but let me remind you that Medium schools and Large schools’ scores are pinned against each other when determining a state champion. This does not mean that we don’t believe that smaller schools should not be allowed to compete at Nationals. We believe that wild card entries should solely be based on scores and not school size. While there obviously needs to be a limit to the number of teams competing at Nationals for practical reasons, there needs to be a wild card system for those teams who perform extremely well but fail to win their state. Whether that number is 10, 15, or 20, doesn’t matter. What matters is ensuring that more of the best teams are able to compete for a National Championship. The counter argument to this system seems to be that all the wild card teams would come from California and Texas. So? If it just so happens that the best teams and students are from California and Texas, then so be it. These schools and students don’t start with a 10,000-point advantage; they work that much harder and have earned their right to compete. Is it really an advantage if their scores reflect more hours spent grinding through resources under fluorescent lights on a sunny summer afternoon that could have been spent doing anything else. By not allowing such teams to participate at Nationals, you void the many hours worked and sacrifices made to get the extraordinary score they earned.
Now we are sure by now some if not all readers are extremely confused as to why we have published this more than a month after the finalization of Texas State results. As long as this letter may seem, it is not because this took an entire month to write. We are writing this in the wake of yet another decision of United States Academic Decathlon that is truly baffling. If you are unaware of the situation currently underway regarding the participation of individuals at the National Competition, then fasten your seat belts, because it is going to be a bumpy ride. This is the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Following the rejection of our appeal at the end of February, several members of our team decided to sign up to attend Nationals independently. This meant that the team had to forgo the opportunity to take part Online-Nationals as we did the previous year. Everyone was fine with that decision as only some of the seniors were interested while the juniors wanted to start preparing for next year. Upon the return of our applications with a metaphorical “rejected” stamp on it, one member of our team decided to inquire as to why. When he called the USAD office, he was informed that only 2 decathletes were chosen from the entire state of Texas regardless of category. Before we continue, the whole point of the category distinctions is to separate students based on their GPA, therefore the idea of throwing away this fundamental principle of Academic Decathlon (the principle being that all students are welcome to compete, and better themselves, regardless of their GPA) at the very end is ludicrous. If there were no categories then the best teams would just be made up of 9 honors, and almost all medals would be won by honors. The selection for nationals should be separated by category the same way the rest of the competition is for this same reason. Without the divisions, the entire population of competitors would only represent 1 GPA category, going against the all-inclusive nature of Academic Decathlon where students of all different GPA categories are given an avenue through which they can learn, grow and compete. If this is the way USAD wishes to conduct their business, then they are in fact discriminating against students in the scholastic and varsity division and going against their “core values” as listed on their website. They have failed to provide “equal opportunities for students of different achievement levels” and have ignored the fact that they value “the importance of inclusivity and diversity to learning and the human experience.”
Despite our anger, if that was their decision, then that was their decision. But then we learned of a wrinkle. We figured that two of the top honors would be taking the only two spots due to their scores and that would be the end of it, but our coach likes to keep his ear to the ground and has done so for a long time. He discovered that a Texas varsity was selected with an objective score of 6020. This made no sense to us because if USAD had followed their own rules, then the only two students selected should have been the top two honors that applied. We also knew from outside sources that quite a few honors with higher scores applied but were also rejected, and one of our own teammates had beaten this varsity by ~400 points.
We do not see how setting a score threshold and then letting every student who chooses to compete and meets that requirement affects any “logistics” for running nationals. All the venues are already paid for and the additional costs associated with possibly a few dozen more students are miniscule and covered by the dues anyway. There is no viable argument that we can find to limit the number of individuals competing. These students have put hundreds if not thousands of hours into this competition, and after not being allowed to participate at the national level representing their school and their team that has grown into a pseudo family; we would hope that USAD would give them a chance to compete to represent themselves.
The only compensation for the few of us who wanted to participate was to go to nationals and make a statement saying that we will not be forgotten, and we will never forget. But now with the way USAD has conducted the selection for the individual competition, they have taken away our voice. They have shattered the hopes of three seniors from just our team who already had their dreams smashed by the shenanigans of State and wanted to stand up and say “this is our last chance and we want to make the best of it.”
In recent days USAD released a list containing the individuals who were invited to Nationals in Frisco. What we discovered is that USAD selected 30 honors out of the 40 people chosen, meaning scholastics and varsities had to fight for the remaining spots. Another interesting thing that this list reveals is that 7/18 spots reserved for US students are taken by decathletes from schools that already won their state. This means that their performance did not warrant a spot on their own team, much less a spot to attend nationals over students who scored much higher than they did. Some schools will have 11 students attending nationals, whereas other schools that decisively beat them will have 0.
At the moment we have contradicting information regarding our eligibility to attend Nationals in Frisco. One USAD official has said that we are eligible and one has said that we are not. We asked USAD if we forgo our opportunity to participate in Online-Nationals, are we still eligible to attend Nationals in Frisco. They replied on March 1 that as long as we declined to participate as a team, individuals could apply for Individual Nationals. In recent days when trying to ascertain the answers as to why we were not selected, a different USAD official said that it was because our team qualified for Online-Nationals and elected not to participate. These mixed messages and lack of transparency are frustrating and disappointing because as decathletes we expect USAD to hold themselves to a higher standard.
For our final thoughts, we would like to remind you of the reason we have chosen to take the time and effort to write this. Although we wrote this to discuss the 2018 Texas State meet, we hope that it did not sound like the whining of a toddler that didn’t get what they wanted. We hope that instead it offered valid and logical points and suggestions to improve the system for future years. We wrote this with only one purpose in mind: we want change and we hope this letter will help instigate that change. We lost the state title this year because of the circumstances discussed above and we have accepted that there is nothing we can do to change that fact. But we will not calmly stand by and let what happened to us, happen to another hard-working and dedicated team. As bad as it feels to be a martyr for change that we will not be able to experience; knowing that another team will not endure the hardships that we have had to suffer through makes the struggle worth it. Just because something is the status quo or is the way it has always been, does not justify its incompetence. USAD has failed for years to do anything to fix a broken system, and we have lost our opportunity to be proactive. Let us, at the very least, be reactive. Let us learn from what has happened this year, and vow to not let another group of bright young minds have their hard-earned titles stolen from them by indolence, inaction, or laziness.
As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”