United States Academic Decathlon

From Academic Kids

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The United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) is one of the premier academic competitions in the United States. It was started by Dr. Robert Peterson in Orange County, California for local schools in 1968, but was expanded to a nation-wide competition in 1981.


Team makeup and eligibility

The USAD is unique in terms of the breadth of knowledge and diversity of teams that it requires.

A team from a school can have up to nine members on it. Three members are called honors and their GPA can be anything up to and including 4.0 (Note that GPA is determined in a unique way for Academic Decathlon by ignoring honors classes and most electives). Three members are called scholastic and their GPA can be anything up to and including 3.74. Three members are called varsity and their GPA can be anything up to and including 2.99. Therefore, teams are forced to find people with below a "B" grade average to host a full team.

It is not uncommon for students to compete in a higher category. For instance, a student with a GPA of 2.8 would normally compete in the varsity category, but could compete in scholastic or honors. Generally it is to the students advantage to complete in the lowest category they can, as the scores in varsity are typically lower than those in scholastic, and those in scholastic are typically lower than those in honors.


Since it is a decathlon, there are ten events. These events typically include the following: language & literature, art, music, social science, economics, mathematics, science, written essay, interview, and speech (prepared and impromptu).

The topics of the events are known a year in advance of the national competition. For instance, language & literature typically focuses on several books or poems, art and music have selected pieces that students must be familiar with, social science might focus on the geography of a particular part of the world, economics might be limited to macroeconomics or microeconomics, etc. Essay, interview, and speech do not change from year-to-year, although some essay topics are related to other events.

As the competition has evolved, more of the events have been tied into a central theme. For example, in 2006, the theme is "The Renaissance" and some the themed events are:

  • Language & literature will be based on the Elizabethan dramas, such as William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Much Ado About Nothing, as well as other shorter selections written during that time period
  • Economics is focused on economies during the Renaissance
  • Science is focused on anatomy and physiology
  • Art emphasized Renaissance artwork
  • The Super Quiz (see below) is focused on the "European Renassance: Renewal and Reform"
  • The essay is written from three possible prompts: either one of two language and literature based prompts or a Super Quiz based prompt, and is therefore based on the theme

Super Quiz

The Super Quiz is one highlighted event out of the subjects, but it is never mathematics, essay, speech, or interview. It is always a special topic in relations to the theme. The Super Quiz provides the overall focus for the competition, and other events may be influenced by the choice of Super Quiz topic. Additionally, the Super Quiz not only contains a written test, but also a quizbowl type competition, where students have a few seconds to answer a few questions for a large number of points. In the competitions held at counties across the United States, the SuperQuiz competition is generally referred to as the 'SuperQuiz' relay. In this portion, each school sends up 3 students at a time to compete. Varsity students go first, and after that scholastics and honors. Each group of students are given ten questions. These questions are read aloud to the audience and are in printed form for the competitors. After the questions and answers are read, the students are allowed seven seconds in which they have to bubble in the correct answer on their answer sheet. Their answer is corrected on the spot, and their score is immediately known to everyone. This portion of academic decathlon has long been regarded as the most 'fun,' since parents and friends are welcome to watch, as school cheer for their competitors.

  • Past Super Quiz topics
    • 2005-2006 - The European Renaissance
    • 2004-2005 - Astronomy
    • 2003-2004 - The Lewis and Clark Expedition
    • 2002-2003 - The Ocean
    • 2001-2002 - The Internet
    • 2000-2001 - Concepts of the Self: Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion
    • 1998-1999 - The Brain
    • 1997-1998 - Economics
    • 1996-1997 - Technology

Study materials

USAD publishes study materials for all the events. All questions on written tests come directly from these study materials. The sale of these materials supports USAD economically.

Third-party study materials

In the late 1990's, various third-party companies, most notably DemiDec and Acalon, began preparing study materials. These study materials provided students with potential test questions and ways to think about the subjects in a different way. These materials, including flash cards, practice tests, and even board games were used by top state winning and national ranking teams leading to increased profit for these companies and a schism with USAD.

In a response to these companies providing extra materials, USAD began providing extra materials, at a cost, to schools. Third party companies still remain popular, however. Most teams order the USAD materials (because the tests mostly come from their contents, especially opinions on things such as the underlying meaning of plays, etc.) but some also rely on a third party source. As of 2004 the largest company providing third party materials is DemiDec. They are known for releasing their materials much earlier than their competition.

Cheating and biases

There have been some cases of cheating in the history of the decathlon, the most notable being the 1995 Illinois state finals, in which Steinmetz High School was able to secure copies of the test in advance and defeat perennial powerhouse Whitney Young Magnet High School. This was dramatized in the movie Cheaters.

Since part of the Super Quiz event takes place on a stage in front of an audience and other teammates, there have been instances of cheating occurring at all levels. In order to prevent this, USAD officials have asked that competition venues either have students sit with their back to the crowd or position lighting in such a way that students cannot see the crowd.

In order to keep the contest secure and free from bias in events that are graded by judges (essay, interview, and speech), no identifying information about the student or their school can be given.

Scoring and winning

There are three official levels of competititon: regional, state, and national, with top finishers advancing to the next level. Regional competitions only exist in states with relatively large numbers of teams competing, and as such some states do not have regional competition. Additionally, many large competition states have school, multi-school, or citywide unofficial competitions for practice.

Each event is worth 1,000 points, with a theoretical maximum individual score of 10,000. The overall team score is composed of the overall scores of the top two performers in each grade category, so a theoretical maximum team score is 60,000 (though it is highly unlikely that either of these scores will ever be achieved). In competitive states, an average individual gold-medal score typically ranges between 7,500 and 8,500, and state winning team scores are usually around 39,000 to 42,000 (6,500 to 7,000 for each member on average). National champion scores typically range between 45,000 and 50,000.

States with large numbers of schools competing may have district and regional competitions, with winners advancing to the state finals competition. State winners advance to the national finals, which are hosted in different states from year to year.

Perfect scores of 1,000 in events are recorded regularly, and in some cases there have been 30+ way ties at the national competition because of perfect and near perfect scores.


As of 2004, approximately 40 states in the United States send teams to the national finals. There are academic decathlon competitions in Canada and Australia, and in some cases teams from these nations have participated in the US national finals.

California and Texas have a large number of schools competing (over 500 for each), and the national finals have been won all but one time by the winners of these two states.

The competition is so respected and competitive in some states that some colleges offer scholarships for those who perform well in state and national finals.

National Winners

Here is a list of known national winners and corresponding years:

  • 2005 - (49,009.4) El Camino Real High School - Woodland Hills, California
    • (48,285.4) Mountain View Mesa High School - Mesa, Arizona
  • 2004 - (50,656.8) El Camino Real High School - Woodland Hills, California
    • (50,390.8) Mountain View Mesa High School - Mesa, Arizona
  • 2003 - (51,423) Moorpark High School - Moorpark, California
    • (49,218) Waukesha West High School - Waukesha, Wisconsin
  • 2002 - (48,871) Waukesha West High School - Waukesha, Wisconsin
    • (48,292) Moorpark High School - Moorpark, California
  • 2001 - (46,547) El Camino Real High School - Woodland Hills, California
    • (46,526) James E. Taylor High School - Katy, Texas
  • 2000 - (52,470) James E. Taylor High School - Katy, Texas
    • (52,010) Simi Valley High School - Simi Valley, California
  • 1999 - Moorpark High School - Moorpark, California
  • 1998 - El Camino Real High School - Woodland Hills, California
  • 1997 - James E. Taylor High School - Katy, Texas
  • 1996 - J. Frank Dobie High School - Pasadena, Texas
  • 1995 - John Marshall High School - California
  • 1994 - (50,515) Taft High School - Woodland Hills, California
  • 1993 - Plano East High School - Plano, Texas
  • 1992 - J. Frank Dobie High School - Pasadena, Texas
  • 1991 - J. J. Pearce High School - Richardson, Texas
  • 1990 - Lake Highlands High School - Richardson, Texas
  • 1989 - (45,857) Taft High School - Woodland Hills, California
  • 1988 - J. J. Pearce High School - Richardson, Texas
  • 1987 - John Marshall High School - California
  • 1986 - J. J. Pearce High School - Richardson, Texas
  • 1985 - J. J. Pearce High School - Richardson, Texas
  • 1984 - J. J. Pearce High School - Richardson, Texas
  • 1983 - California
  • 1982 - California

External links

  • USAD official website (http://www.usad.org/)
  • DemiDec (http://www.demidec.com/) - A third party material preparer, with lots of information on the events from year to year, plus a message board (http://www.acadectalk.com/).

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