Academic Decathlon and Secondary Students

Winter 1998 Masthead

Carol L. Tieso
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

Which of the following is known for the development of the 12 tone row? As reported in The Economist 1993 survey of countries, even several years before the colony was returned to China, Hong Kong ranked low in . . . (United States Academic Decathlon [USAD], 1997). Could you answer these questions about music or international economics? Thousands of students across the United States demonstrate their knowledge of these disciplines and eight others in a national competition called Academic Decathlon. The USAD is a competition in which teams of students match their intellectual wits with students from other schools in their regions. Students are tested in ten subject areas: Language and Literature, Mathematics, Science, Social Science, Economics, Fine Arts, Speech, Interview, and Super Quiz. Academic Decathlon teams are made up of three students each for Honors, Scholastic, and Varsity categories, which are designated by the United States Academic Decathlon and are contingent upon students’ grade point averages (“A” average or Honors is GPA of 3.75+, “B” average or Scholastic is GPA of 3.00-3.74, and “C” average or Varsity is GPA of 2.99-2.00) in academic subjects. Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals are awarded for individual events and plaques for overall high scores. The winning team from each geographical area (usually a county) advances to the state and eventually, the national level. Some schools also have the opportunity to compete on an “at-large” basis if their total team score surpasses a certain benchmark. The Academic Decathlon was created by Dr. Robert Peterson, a former Superintendent of Schools in Orange County, California. Dr. Peterson believed that “everyone’s potential could be maximized through competitive challenge.” What began as a California state competition in 1981 is now recognized as the most “prestigious high school academic team competition in the United States” (USAD, 1997).

Program Description

The Academic Decathlon consists of ten subject areas for a maximum score of 60,000 points: Super Quiz, Social Studies, Language and Literature, Science, Mathematics, Essay, Economics, Prepared Speech, Impromptu Speech, and Interview. The curriculum content varies from year to year with some exceptions. Due to its hefty scoring weight, the most important area of study in the competition is the Super Quiz. The collective team score is also reflected in each individual’s score; (e.g., a team score seven points greater in the Super Quiz could translate into an overall team score advantage of 3000 points). This is also the most exciting aspect of the competition because of its “College Bowl” atmosphere. The Super Quiz is a live competition in which Honors, Scholastic, and Varsity students compete and answer questions singly. Language and Literature includes one novel, which for 1997-98 is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a lyric poem or reflective essay, and a section reserved for general literary terms. The Social Science area changes from year to year, from the Cultural Geography of the African Continent (1996-97) to political “isms” such as Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, and Marxism. Science also varies yearly, with physics and environmental engineering the most prevalent topical areas. Fine Arts consists of music and art, with students studying major composers and artists and their most important works from various periods. The Mathematics component is relatively static and consists of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and introductory calculus. Economics consists of microeconomics and macroeconomics. One major variation in the curriculum for the 1997-98 competition is that economics has been deleted as a subject area, since the major focus of the Super Quiz for 1998 is International Economics. The Essay competition consists of a written reflective, persuasive, or narrative essay scored by a series of proctors using a published essay rubric. The speaking events include a four-minute prepared and a one-and-a-half minute impromptu speech in addition to a panel interview. The United States Academic Decathlon publishes student study guides to help each school prepare for each event. Additionally, many test-preparation companies have sprung up to meet the needs of this burgeoning competition.

Benefits for Four Students

For the past seven years, in addition to my regular duties as the gifted and talented coordinator and Advanced Placement teacher, I served as the coach of the Academic Decathlon team at a high school in California. This past year, the team won the county competition and went on to compete at the California State Academic Decathlon Competition in Los Angeles. In addition to the academic rigor of the competition, there are several other important outcomes for gifted students. Four gifted and talented young people shared their experiences in Academic Decathlon. One team member, Chris, had these musings on his experience on the Academic Decathlon team:

The Academic Decathlon was the most positive experience of my high school career. It made me push myself to the limits and it made me realize my full potential. It helped me to overcome my fear of public speaking and helped me to develop study habits that have really made me a better student in college. It was the biggest boost of my self-esteem in my entire life when I got the medals at the end and realized that I was not just an average student, but one with the definite ability to succeed.

One of the second-year team members reflected on his high school experience after entering college:

I remember the first day in Decathlon when you told me, and the class, that I was going to win the overall title at the county meet. You don’t know how much that meant to me at the time and even now. You trusted me and, with that, I’m indebted to you. As I continue with this newer level of education, I’ll never forget the way you cared about me and my well being.

A third student, Marcia, is an example of a gifted underachiever who joined Academic Decathlon. In her first year as a Varsity (“C” average) competitor, she earned ten medals in various subject areas. In her senior year, she earned eight of the possible ten Gold medals in the Varsity category. She also earned the team’s only Gold medal in the Essay competition at the state meet. Marcia was also enrolled in my Advanced Placement Government course but rarely spoke out in class. As a direct result of her experience in Academic Decathlon, she began to express her opinion more regularly and became a key leader in developing and implementing the area’s first Young Women’s Conference.

The final student in this narrative, Robert, had been involved in a fatal traffic accident involving a group of students that occurred before his participation in Academic Decathlon. Robert was in emotional tatters after the accident; his classmates could not have blamed him any more than he blamed himself. I was a bit apprehensive when he approached me that spring about enrolling in Academic Decathlon, but I tried to make him feel welcome. He worked incredibly hard and eventually made the competition team. As he waited for his ride home each evening after class (his license had been suspended), we had long discussions about the accident and its effect on him. He is an extremely bright, articulate young man who had aspirations of attending the University of California. He feared his acceptance might be in jeopardy because of the incomplete grades he had earned from months of physical and emotional therapy. His parents proudly looked on as Robert repeatedly walked to center stage to receive his various medals at the county competition. Afterward, his mother embraced me and thanked me for “giving her her son back.” A teacher is lucky to have just one moment like that in her teaching career.

Implications for Gifted and Talented Education

Academic Decathlon allows gifted and talented students the opportunity to learn advanced, accelerated content, acquire higher level thinking skills, develop an interest in and love for interdisciplinary study, learn vital communication skills, have access to multiple learning modalities, work cooperatively with students of similar ability, specialize in an area of interest, develop affective and leadership skills and overcome the deleterious effects of underachievement.

VanTassel-Baska (1994) identifies several key components of an advanced curriculum for gifted learners. “Is the content topic important and worthy of the time to be expended on it?” Academic Decathlon subject areas, especially the Super Quiz, represent content that is current and important in the larger political and social context. For example, this year’s Super Quiz topic in International Economics while last year’s was the Information Revolution. “Is the content topic conceptually complex enough to render it meaningful for gifted students?” The ten subject areas of the Academic Decathlon are interdisciplinary. Students have the opportunity to study the history, literature, and art of the period or theme for that year’s competition. Students specifically refer to the interdisciplinary aspect of the subject areas as a novel aspect of their preparation. “Is the content topic relevant to how the world works?” Two years ago, the social science topic was socialism, Marxism, etc., accompanied by the art and music of revolutions and a Super Quiz topic on the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Students are able to study, in-depth, areas which are too current to be included in most social science texts. “Is the content topic one that could be taught effectively by the designated instructor?” One of the key aspects of a successful Academic Decathlon team is the coach. Many hours of preparation, working with students who may be emotionally excitable and highly sensitive, can leave the most experienced teacher emotionally and physically spent. It is vitally important for school officials to choose teachers who are excited about working with these students and experienced enough to deal with their ever-changing emotional and intellectual personalities.

A key contribution of Academic Decathlon to gifted and talented education is the incorporation of higher level thinking skills. Feldhusen, VanTassel-Baska, and Seeley (1989) suggest that higher level thinking skills, such as those promoted by the writing and speaking aspects of the competition, can and should be taught to gifted learners. “We endeavor to build strength in thinking in students who show promise of high-level cognitive attainment, and we assume that strength in thinking will transfer to a wide variety of problem situations” (p. 240). Students involved in Academic Decathlon are able to build cognitive thinking skills through the continuous process of writing, speaking, and revising.

Karnes and Riley (1996) identify a multitude of ways in which academic competitions such as Academic Decathlon positively affect gifted students: “Their knowledge bases are expanded in the specific areas of the contests, along with the skills needed for participation. Gains are made in process skills and personal and interpersonal development” (p. 14). Students are encouraged to think creatively and critically during discussions of literature, music, and art examples. Additional skills are developed in leadership, group dynamics, goal setting, and communication.

Emerick (1992) studied students who reversed academic underachievement by utilizing some of the same techniques embedded in Academic Decathlon. She suggests that one way students were able to overcome their own underachievement “was through developing goals, the attainment of which was both personally motivating and directly related to academic success” (p. 143). All of the students mentioned earlier noted that the opportunity to work toward a group goal, winning the competition, while achieving an individual goal, winning a medal, were highly motivating and crucial to their academic success in high school.

Finally, perhaps the most important benefit of participation in Academic Decathlon is in students’ affective development. Gifted students, particularly those in the Scholastic and Varsity categories, may be dealing with issues of underachievement, low self-esteem, and a low sense of self-efficacy. Participation in a competitive, yet cooperative, situation can have positive effects on students’ self-concept and locus of control (Karnes & Riley, 1996). All four of my students were positively affected by their participation in Academic Decathlon, from the underachievement reversal of Marcia to the rejuvenation of spirit in Robert. The Academic Decathlon team leader, Sai, summarized the importance of the experience to him:

The various topics provided by Decathlon allowed these students (Scholastic and Varsity categories) to find their niche and since they know that they can compete with others of higher grades, it increases their self-esteem and puts down all the doubts they had in the past from teachers who told them that they weren’t good enough . . . . What everyone gets from Decathlon, I think, is a sense of direction.

For high school students who suffer from underachievement and multi-potentiality, there could be no more priceless lesson.

Emerick, L. (1992). Academic underachivement among the gifted: Students’ perceptions of factors that reverse the pattern. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36, 140-146.
Feldhusen, J., VanTassel-Baska, J., & Seeley, K. (1989). Excellence in educating the gifted. Denver, CO: Love Publishing.
Karnes, F., & Riley, R. (1996). Competitions: Developing and nurturing talents. Gifted Child Today, 19(2), 14-15, 49.
United States Academic Decathlon. USAD History. [On-line] Available http//, November 1997.
VanTassel-Baska, J. (1994). Comprehensive curriculum for gifted learners. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


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