United States Academic Decathlon

The United States Academic Decathlon (USAD; often abbreviated to AD, Acadeca, Acadec, AcDec, or AcDc) is one of the premier academic competitions for high school students in the United States. It consists of seven multiple choice tests, two performance events and an essay. The Academic Decathlon was created by Dr. Robert Peterson in Orange County, California for local schools in 1968 and was expanded to a nation-wide setting in 1981. In that inaugural year, 17 states and the District of Columbia vied for the first national title. As of 2008, the number of competing states sits at 42.

A unique aspect of the Academic Decathlon is that it is designed to include students from all academic abilities and achievement levels. Teams consist of nine members, who are divided in three categories based on grade point average: Honors (3.75–4.0 GPA), Scholastic (3.00–3.74 GPA), and Varsity (0.00–2.99 GPA). Each team member competes in all ten events against other students in his/her division. Overall team scores are calculated using the top two individual scores from each division. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded for each individual event as well as overall scores. To earn a spot at the national event in April, teams must advance through local, regional, and state levels of competition. The reigning national champion is Moorpark High School from Ventura, California.

The ten events require talents from all forms of academia. Students must take seven multiple choice tests in Art, Economics, Language and Literature, Math, Music, Science and Social Science. These topics, with the exception of Math, are all tied together by a theme each year. For the 2008–2009 season, the theme is Latin America. Each year, one of the multiple choice events, usually Science or Social Science, becomes the Super Quiz. The Super Quiz topic generally becomes the focus of that year's theme. In addition to the seven objective events, there are three events graded by judges: Essay, Interview and Speech.

Over the years, there have been various small controversies in the world of Academic Decathlon. The most famous is the scandal involving Steinmetz High School of Chicago, Illinois. The school was caught cheating at the 1995 Illinois state finals. The story was dramatized in 2000 in the film Cheaters.



The Academic Decathlon was formed in 1968 by Dr. Robert Peterson, superintendent of schools in Orange County, California. The inaugural competition was held December 1968, and played host to 103 students. From this point to 1979, only regional contests were held, but as early as 1969 there was a push to make the competition state-wide. In 1979 the competition was made to include the entire state of California, and then in 1981, the United States Academic Decathlon Association was formed which encompassed the entire nation. In April 1982, the first United States Academic Decathlon national competition was held at Loyola Marymount University in California where 17 states and the District of Columbia participated. However, Dr. Peterson's vision was bigger than just a national event. Inspired by the presence of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he sought to bring the competition to the international level. This goal was realized at the 1984 Nationals which drew teams from 32 states, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and South Korea. The inclusion of foreign countries is not a regular occurrence however. The next occurrence of international participation was at the 1989 national competition when teams from Northern Ireland and Rio de Janeiro competed. Since then, a school from British Columbia, Canada is the only foreign competitor to have made a grab for the national title, having unsuccessfully done so in 2004. It is unclear why international competition has been so minimal.

The original Academic Decathlon was organized differently from its current structure. Initially, the ten events were Economics, Essay, Fine Arts, Interview, Language and Literature, Math, Science, Social Science, Speech and Super Quiz. It was not until 1998 that Fine Arts was split into its two constituent tests: Art and Music. Due to the division of the Fine Arts event, Super Quiz now had to take the place of one of the subjects each year. In 1998, Super Quiz replaced, for the first and last time, Economics; 1999 and 2000 both featured Science-based Super Quizzes, and in 2001 and 2002 Super Quiz was Social Science based. From 2003 to the present, the Super Quiz has alternated between Science and Social Science.

In addition to shuffling subjects around, USAD has changed the amount of personal research required by students. From the Academic Decathlon's inception until the 1998–1999 season, students performed all their own research for each event. Because of this, test writers did not have to base their questions on material USAD published. However, this policy changed at the beginning of the 1999–2000 school year, and required that all test questions come strictly from USAD supplied materials. With the change in policy came a change in scores. Records were being set all across the country. That year at Nationals, James E. Taylor High School had the highest team score yet seen at the national competition: 52,470. In addition to the change in stance on personal research, Math saw a change in subject matter. Previously, it was founded in the principles of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. However, for the 1999, 2000 and 2001 curricula, topics such as fractal geometry, chaotic dynamics, logic and set theory, and general statistics were used. In 2002, Math returned to its roots and again focused on algebra, geometry, trigonometry and differential calculus.


The 2000–2001 season witnessed a large number of changes to USAD. The program's executive director of four years, James Alvino, resigned. This followed controversy surrounding a religious article Alvino had written and had included in that year's Super Quiz Resource. Alvino stated, "I think that misunderstandings surrounding that article helped precipitate these actions". In addition to the loss of the program's director, USAD once again altered their testing policies: 50% of test questions were to come from USAD published materials, and 50% were to come from other unspecified sources. Economics focused on business organizations and profiles in individual enterprise rather than macroeconomics and microeconomics as it had for the previous 19 years. A decrease in scores followed these changes. The national winner that year, El Camino Real High School, scored 5,923 points less than the score put up by James E. Taylor High School the previous year. The 2000–2001 season was also significant in that it was the first year that states were allowed to send their large and small school champions to the national competition. However, this practice was short-lived and was discontinued after the 2002 season. Instead, a small school e-Nationals was introduced during the 2005–2006 school year. The medium school e-Nationals was establashed two years later.


The 2001–2002 season brought stability for the Academic Decathlon. That year the current system for organizing the curriculum was instituted: guides were published for each objective event with 75% of the test questions coming from these guides and 25% being independent research. This is also the year that saw the Super Quiz begin its tradition of alternating between Social Science and Science. Since 2002, the only significant change the program has seen is the increase in the number of Math questions from 25 to 35 in 2005 and the change in calculator policy in 2007. Previously, graphing calculators were not allowed during the Math event.


Team makeup and eligibility

The USAD requires breadth of knowledge and diversity of teams. Teams must have students that fall into three categories specified by GPA. The Honors category is composed of students with GPAs between 3.75 and 4.0, with a 4.0 being the highest possible. The next category, the Scholastic, is made of students with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.74. The final group, the Varsity category, consists of students whose GPA range from 0.00 to 2.99. USAD uses a modified GPA scale in which "performance-based" classes such as music, art or physical education are omitted from the GPA calculation. Additionally, a grade counts for face value regardless of whether it is advanced placement, honors, regular or remedial classification.

A team typically consists of 9 competitors: three honors, three scholastic and three varsity. However, since only the top two scores from each category count towards the team's total score, a team can compete with as few as six students. Students may compete in a higher category than the one they are assigned to, but generally it is to the students' advantage to compete in the lowest category they can. This is because the scores in Varsity are typically lower than those in Scholastic, and those in Scholastic are typically lower than those in Honors. For instance, a student with a GPA of 2.8 normally competes in the Varsity category, but has the ability to compete as a Scholastic or Honors. Conversely, an Honors student cannot compete as a Scholastic or a Varsity.

Levels of competition

There are four official levels of competition: local/scrimmage, regional, state, and national (Rounds 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively). With the exception of Round 1, only the top finishers in each Round advance to the next level. Regional competitions only exist in states that have relatively large numbers of teams. As such, states with a small number of competing schools—for example, South Dakota, Missouri, Oregon—do not require a regional competition. Many large states have local scrimmages using the Round 1 tests, but these are largely for practice and do not determine whether a team can compete at the regional level which uses Round 2 tests. In the 2006–2007 season, 39 states sent teams to the national finals. South Dakota joined in for the 2007–2008 season, as well as Oregon, which has not participated since 2003–2004, bringing the total number of participating states to 42.


As in an athletic decathlon, USAD has ten events. They are Art, Economics, Essay, Interview, Language and Literature, Math, Music, Science, Social Science, and Speech. Each year, one of the ten subjects is chosen as the Super Quiz, which uses a different format than the other events. The topics and theme of the competition are released in March of every year, giving students time to prepare for the competition season which runs from November to April.

The events are split up into two groups: the seven objective tests (Art, Economics, Language and Literature, Math, Music, Science and Social Science) and the three subjective events (Essay, Interview and Speech). They are designated as such because the former seven are multiple choice tests, whereas the latter three are graded by judges. Students are given half an hour to answer each multiple choice exam. These exams consist of 50 questions, with the exception of Math and Super Quiz which have 35 and 40 questions respectively.

Objective events

In general, the objective events follow a set organizational outline from year to year. Language and Literature focuses on a main novel or a set of plays in addition to multiple short selections which tend to be poems or excerpts from short stories. The Art and Music competitions have compiled selections of pieces with which students must familiarize themselves. Economics is largely static every year with 85% of the subject focusing on macroeconomics and microeconomics. The remaining 15% of the event relates to that year's curriculum. For example, in the 2005 theme "Exploring the Ancient World", this 15% dealt with the economics of ancient Egypt and Rome. The Math curriculum has remained constant since 2002 dealing with general math, geometry, trigonometry, and differential calculus. Science and Social Science change completely each season and depend on that year's theme. Unlike the other events, there is no basic information that carries over.

Subjective events

The subjective events each have a separate set of rules, and allow the students far more creativity than the objective subjects. In the Speech event, a three and a half to four minute long prepared speech is delivered followed by a one and a half to two minute impromptu speech. One minute is made available to prepare for this impromptu speech, which must be based on one of three random topics. Example prompts include, "It has been said about our modern times that, 'Invention is the mother of necessity.' Please discuss.", "Math has been described as the universal language. Discuss" and "Why is light, light and dark, dark?". In the Interview event, the students are asked a wide variety of questions in a formal environment. Such questions range from, "Who is your role model?" to, "How would you alert someone that their zipper is down?". In order to discourage favoritism, the interviewers are not allowed to ask what school the competitor attends. In the Essay event, students are given 50 minutes to write a well-organized essay responding to one of three or more prompts derived from the year's curriculum. Usually, these topics are obtained from the Language and Literature and Super Quiz material, although topics can be pulled from other events as well.

Super Quiz

The competition format of the Super Quiz differs from that of the other subject areas. It was added in 1969 to add a championship feel to culminate the event. The Super Quiz consists of a 40 question multiple choice test as well as an oral relay. This is generally referred to as the Super Quiz Relay, and is unique in that it is the only event viewable to the general public. The relay starts with the varsity students answering their questions first. The scholastic division follows with the honors students going last. Each group of students is given 5 or 10 questions, depending on the format decided by the state coordinator. These questions are read aloud to the audience and are printed or projected for the competitors. After the questions and answers are read, the students are allowed seven seconds to select the correct answer. The answer is checked on the spot by a judge, and scores are immediately displayed to the audience.


As the competition has evolved, more of the events have been tied into a central theme. The focus of the 2008-2009 curriculm is Latin America with an emphasis on Mexico. Language and Literature is based on six short selections as well as the novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. The Art topic will focus on the art of Mexico featuring, among others, the artists Miguel Cabrera and Diego Riviera. The Music event concentrates on Latin American music which features 14 tracks including works by Manuel de Zumaya and Silvestre Revueltas. Social Science and Economics focus on the history and economy of Mexico respectively. The Super Quiz covers an introduction to evolutionary biology, the historical development of the theory of evolution, natural selection, speciation, mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and evolutionary developmental biology. Information is also included on Darwin's voyages, as well as his work in Latin America.

Topics, past and present

Year Topic Super Quiz
2009 Latin America Evolutionary Biology
2008 History of the Civil War The Civil War
2007 China and Its Influence on the World An Introduction to Climatology
2006 The European Renaissance: Renewal and Reform The European Renaissance: Renewal and Reform
2005 Exploring the Ancient World From Empty Space to Incredible Universe: The Sky Is Not the Limit
2004 America: The Growth of a Nation The Lewis and Clark Expedition
2003 Understanding the Natural World The Blue Planet: Beneath the Surface
2002 Understanding Others E-communication: The Internet & Society
2001 Understanding the Self Concepts of the Self: Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion
2000 Looking Forward: Creating the Future Sustainable Earth
1999 Looking Inward: Developing a Sense of Meaning The Brain
1998 Looking Outward: Forces Shaping Society Globalization: The New Economy
1997 Communication and Culture The Information Revolution
1996 Competition and Cooperation The United Nations: Competition and Cooperation
1995 Health, Wellness, and Biotechnology Biotechnology: The Next Frontier
1994 Documents of Freedom
1993 A Diversity of Achievers
1992 Habitat Earth
1991 Space Exploration
1990 American Indians: Our American Heritage
1989 The U.S. Presidency
1988 The History of Flight
1987 We The People: The Constitution of the United States
1986 Immigration to the United States
1985 Futurism-Megatrends
1984 The Olympic Games

Study materials

Breakdown of how subjects are organized
Subject Percentage of Resource Guide-Based Items per Test Percentage of Research-Based Items per Test
Art 75% 25%
Economics 15% 85%
Language and Literature1 N/A N/A
Math 0% 100%
Music 75% 25%
(Social) Science 75% 25%
Super Quiz 100% 0%
1The first 10 questions are over a critical reading passage. The remaining 40 come from the selected works of literature, Resource Guide and Basic Guide.

USAD publishes study materials for all the objective events (nothing is provided for Essay, Interview or Speech), with the sale of the materials supporting the program. USAD publishes a variety of study materials, but the Resource Guides and the Basic Guides make up the majority of the USAD corpus. An art reproduction booklet and music CD contain that year's relevant pieces and are issued separately from the Resource Guides. Study Guides are also published and contain detailed topical outlines for each objective subject. These outlines specifically indicate which topics will require independent research beyond the Resource Guides.

Resource Guides are offered in Art, Economics, Language and Literature, Music, Science / Social Science, and Super Quiz. The Super Quiz Resource Guide is a compendium of previously published articles, whereas the other Resource Guides are written by individual writers under contract with USAD. The aim of the Resource Guide is to assist students in their study of the topics listed in the subject area outlines. As an example, in 2003 the Music topic was Romantic music. Subsequently the Music Resource Guide focused on the development of Romantic music, its characteristics and the influence of the Classical era on the Romantic era. A large part of the guide focused on information about that year's composers: Beethoven, Berlioz, Rossini, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Mussorgsky, Wagner, Bizet, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Strauss. Similarly, the Art topic being studied was Romantic art in the European tradition. The Art Resource Guide included sections detailing the lives and works of relevant artists such as Joseph Mallord William Turner, Claude Monet, Albert Bierstadt,and Camille Pissarro.

Basic Guides are issued for the independent research that, unlike the Resource Guides, remains the same from year to year. The Art Basic Guide focuses on art fundamentals, looking at the elements of art, principles of composition and different 2-d and 3-d techniques. Additionally, a brief introduction to art history is included. The Economics Basic Guide reviews fundamental economic concepts in addition to the basics of macroeconomics and microeconomics. The Language and Literature Basic Guide provides students with a basic grounding in the analysis of literature, as well as introducing a slew of key terms such as synecdoche, metonymy, assonance, and aphorism. The Math Basic Guide offers a general overview of major topics in high school math, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and statistics. The Music Basic Guide starts off introducing the student to topics in music theory such as harmonics, rhythm, tempo and the circle of fifths. It also includes information on a wide variety of instruments and a brief history of Western style music.

Scoring and winning

Each of the Academic decathlon’s ten events is evenly weighted at 1,000 points for a possible 10,000 point individual total. Only the top two scores from Honors, Scholastic and Varsity are counted for the team score making 60,000 the maximum overall. With the exception of Math and Super Quiz, the objective tests have 50 items. The raw score for these tests is converted to 1,000 points with each question worth 20 points. The Math event has 35 items which breaks down to 40 points per question. The Super Quiz written test contains 40 questions, each worth 15 points. Depending on the state director, the oral Super Quiz contains either 5 or 10 questions, each worth 80 or 40 points respectively. Perfect scores of 1,000 in events are recorded regularly, and there have been cases of 10+ way ties at competitions because of perfect and near perfect scores. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded in each event and for each category (Honors, Scholastic, and Varsity). All ties are awarded medals.

The Interview and Speech events are graded by two to three judges. The scores from the judges are averaged to give a maximum of 1,000 points per event. The Essay is graded with a rubric, and is read by two different judges whose scores are then averaged. If the difference between the judges' scores differs by 200 points or more, then a third reader is asked to grade the student's essay. The two scores that are closest in value are averaged to give the final score.

A benchmark for the Decathlon elite is obtaining an individual score of over 9,000 points. It was not until 1992, 24 years after the program's inception, that Tyson Rogers achieved this feat at the National competition. Since then, numerous students have broken the 9,000 point barrier. The current highest individual score is 9,321, achieved by Alli Blonski from Waukesha West, Wisconsin at the 2008 national competition. State champion scores vary greatly from year to year. As an example, for the 2002–2003 season, scores ranged from 24,785 to 49,910 points. National champion scores have been as low as 45,857.0 points and as high as 53,119.4 points. The 53,119.4 score produced by the 2008 Moorpark High School team stands as the record for the highest team score.

Nationals winners

The National Championship has the winning school from each state pitted against each other for an overall title. Schools also compete based on school population and are divided into three divisions (I, II, and III). However, this separation is only limited to overall team score and overall individual score. Nine overall team medals are awarded: gold, silver and bronze for each division. Similarly, 27 overall individual medals are awarded: gold, silver and bronze for Honors, Scholastic and Varsity in each division. The rest of the medals—for example, gold in Art for Honors, or silver in Math for Varsity—are awarded to the top scoring persons regardless of division. Since the first national event in 1982, there have been 26 national champions, all of which have come from three states: California, Texas and Wisconsin. The reigning national champion is Moorpark High School from Ventura, California, led by coach Larry Jones.

Virtual competition

In 2006, the small school virtual competition was created for schools with 650 or fewer students. Two years later, the medium school virtual competition was added to accommodate schools with a student population between 650 and 1300. These two separate contests are held via the internet and as such, the Interview and Speech events are excluded. The remaining eight tests are completed on the computer and results are submitted electronically to USAD for scoring. Because only the seven multiple choice tests and Essay are used, team scores are out of 48,000 points instead of 60,000. Despite it being a virtual competition, winning schools are awarded trophies and medals for their efforts. According to USAD, the goal of the small and medium school competitions is to "enhance learning, growth and recognition" for more schools participating in Academic Decathlon.


The United States Academic Decathlon has been host to a number of controversies. The most notable case took place at the 1995 Illinois state finals. Three days before the competition, Steinmetz High School was able to secure copies of the tests from the DeVry Institute of Technology where the state finals were being held. With the tests in hand, they were able to look up the answers which they then memorized. The first clue pointing towards foul play was that a mere 12 students in the nation had scored over 900 points on the Math test. Six of those scores came from Steinmetz High School. The cheating resulted in Steinmetz beating perennial powerhouse Whitney Young Magnet High School who has won the Illinois state finals 22 out of the last 23 years. The incident was dramatized in the movie Cheaters. If cheating is suspected, USAD's official stance is that the team will have to take another set of tests of similar difficulty, or face disqualification.

Previous Catholic Memorial High School coach John Burke was at the center of a dispute over the results of the 2003 Wisconsin state final. Confusion arose over a Catholic Memorial student's essay after the results of the competition were released. Burke contested that there was a possibility that the essay had been scored incorrectly as it had received 390 points out of a possible 1000. The Catholic Memorial coach was well within his rights to contest the score; however USAD official, Gerhard Fischer, said that the way the appeal was handled was "highly questionable." The coach was disciplined for the way he dealt with the situation; however, parents of Catholic Memorial students believed the penalty was due to personality differences between coach Burke and Academic Decathlon officials. The dissension eventually led to a more thorough investigation of previous issues involving Burke. He was accused of "[m]ore than a year of repeated 'attacks' on another school's pupils, including allegations of cheating on tests and ineligibility. All of these things factored into Wisconsin Academic Decathlon's final decision on the situation. Burke was banned from coaching for three years and Catholic Memorial was barred from competition for a year.


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