The Academic Decathlon – How to Prepare for the USAD Test

October 12, 2017 - Education
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Academic competitions are common. There are spelling bees and robotic competitions on a national level, for example. There are school-wide, regional, and state competitions. One of the most interesting national academic competitions is the Academic Decathlon, a product of the U.S. Academic Decathlon Association (USAD).

The competition was created in 1968 by the Superintendent of Schools for Orange Country, California just for California. It was later expanded to a national competition, and today most states and a few international schools now participate.

What is Unique About the Academic Decathlon

Most competitions involve the very best students that schools can put together as competitors. But this one is different, in the following ways:

  • Each team is made up of 9 students. 3 are considered “honors” with GPA’s between 3.75-4.0; 3 are named “scholastic, with GPA’s between 3 – 3.74; 3 are named “varsity” with GPA’s of 0.00 – 2.99).
  • There are ten events, and all students compete as individuals in their classified divisions. Team scores are determined by taking top scores from each division in each of the events and then added up for a total score for the team.
  • Competitions begin at the local level, and the winning team from each state then moves on to the national competition.

Tests of the Competition

The ten events of USAD cover all academic disciplines that typical high school students study. These are as follows:

  • 7 multiple-choice tests in language & literature, math, science, social studies, economics, art and music.
  • There is a Super Quiz that is either in science or social studies
  • There is an essay to write, based upon optional prompts
  • Each student must prepare a speech on a pre-selected topic
  • Each student will be interviewed by judges.

Obviously, the multiple-choice tests are objective measurements. The other three events are assessed subjectively by the judges, although the judging criteria is published on the organization’s website.

Students don’t Go In “Blind”

Every year the organization publishes its curriculum in every subject on its website. This provides students with an outline of the skills and content to be included in the 7 objective tests. This curriculum is developed by a 10-member panel. Anyone contributing to the curriculum must have a Bachelor’s degree in the subject. Once the curriculum is created, it is then checked by others for accuracy.

There is also a USAD “theme” developed for each year, and the tests all relate to the theme. In the language and literature section, for example, a novel or set of plays is selected each year and provided to students. In music and art, students are provided with specific works that they must research and study. If, for example, the theme were to be “Africa,” as it was one year, social studies, language and literature, economics, art, and music tests will all relate to that continent, and contestants are provided specific topics to study.

The Subjective Portions of the Competition

As the term implies, there are no right or wrong answers to these parts of the event.

  1. Speech: This event is divided into two parts. The first is a prepared speech on a pre-provided topic, and it is to be 3 ½ - 4 minutes long. The second part is an impromptu speech. Contestants are given three optional prompts, choose one, and then deliver a 1 ½ - 2minute speech on that topic.
  2. The Interview: This is a formal event, during which the student is asked a series of questions and expected to respond. Questions have included such things as “Who is your role model and why?”
  3. The Essay: Contestants are given three prompts, choose one, and have 50 minutes to write their essays on the chosen topic. The prompts relate to the theme of that year and come from the language and literature or the Super Quiz areas.

How to Prepare for the USAD Test

There is a wealth of information published and updated each year on the organization’s website. This includes the theme and “curriculum” in each of the seven objective testing content areas. Information is released according to a calendar. For the 2017-2018 USAD competition, for example, the theme and general topic was posted March 1, 2018; the outlines for each curricular topic area on May 1; and more specific curriculum materials (e.g., study guides) will began to be shipped out to team coaches and state directors on May 15. The competition takes place in November, 2018, giving teams the summer months to spend time in strong preparation.

Materials for Study – The Objective Multiple-Choice Tests

The study materials that are provided by the USAD, including the topic areas and outlines are all free and can be downloaded from the website, and this is a good start for preparation.

The more specific study materials – resource guides, study guides, etc. must be purchased by each team, and the cost is $1000. While there have been lots of complaints about charging for these materials, the organization claims that it has to in order to meet its over $1 million budget each year. This can put an additional burden on schools and school districts that are from poorer areas, and that has been a point of controversy.

There are also USAD practice tests that are developed each year by third-party for-profit companies. These are sold to teams, and, when schools are able to provide this kind of financial support, the tests can be a big help. The USAD does not support or encourage the purchase of the practice tests; however, they are well-done and can give a team a pretty big advantage. Any time students have the opportunity to take practice test, research shows that they do better on the real thing.

With all of this information and all of these study materials, most teams can be well-prepared for the objective testing events, provided they have a good coach and they spend a lot of time studying the material.

The objective tests are very fact-based and do not require critical or creative thinking. It is really a matter of memorization. Because of this, a number of educational associations, such as the ASCD, have criticized the objective portion of the event. The criticism relates to the fact that students are basically engaged in straight memorization of facts rather than any higher-level thinking skills, such as application, analysis, or synthesis. The Association’s response is that, because the event is theme-based, students will become “experts” of sorts on those wider curricular areas and will have a knowledge base that they would not get in a regular school curricular environment.

Materials for Study – The Subjective Portion of Testing

No one can completely prepare for this portion of the event. However, given that the USAD theme for each year is published, and given that the essay and speech prompts will all relate to this theme, preparation can be in the following forms:

  1. For the essay portion of the exam, students can review and study essay samples in the general topical theme areas. And just as they would practice for an ACT or SAT essay, they should write several essays on their own that also relate to the theme and the language and literature and super quiz curricula.
  2. Speech Preparation: The ability to deliver a good speech is as much about self-confidence as it is about the content. Students should practice preparing and delivering speeches on the thematic topic areas of course. It is the impromptu speech event that will probably present the greatest challenge. But there are tactics and strategies that can be learned and practiced. During the time they have to prepare for USAF test, students should be given topics from their coaches that relate to the theme and take the one-minute of allowed preparation time to gather their thoughts.

The most important parts of any speech are the opening and the ending. Practice using your minute of allowed preparation time to craft a great opening sentence and a solid ending. These will be the most memorable. Again, practice is the one thing that will get you over that anxiety and nervousness.

  1. The Interview: you will not be able to anticipate the questions you might be asked in a formal interview situation. The key to success, though, will be in your ability to stay calm, focused, and poised. Again, the key to a successful interview is practice. Your USAD coach should set up several interview sessions and ask difficult questions. Your goal is to take a minute, think about the question being asked, and form a response that relates directly to that question. Part of evaluating your performance will be your ability to stick to the topic of the question, to speak clearly and with confidence, and to keep your response relatively brief. The biggest mistake that people make during interviews is veering off topic and giving an answer that is disjointed and incoherent.

Outside Research – It is Valuable

You have the outlines and the study guide and resource materials. You know what the theme is. This year, for example, it is Africa. So, how much do you really know about Africa – it’s history, its development, it political, economic and social challenges? Most high schools do not offer a course in African studies, so you may not know much.

You can take the study guides and gain a lot of factual information about Africa, but do you really have a solid, general understanding of the continent? Chances are you don’t. Take some time during the summer months before the competition to make Africa your focus of study. There is an amazing amount of online resources about this continent and the richness of its history, geography, and societies. Your goal should be to get a broad base of general knowledge, so that the factual information you may need to memorize actually makes sense to you.

For example, you can access the National Geographic website and find a huge amount of information about Africa. In fact, there is a TV series on our African beginnings, narrated by Morgan Freeman, that is soon to start. Likewise, there are news stories about Africa published daily by online news organizations.

The more general knowledge you can absorb about Africa, the more you will be able to appear as an “expert,” especially during the subjective portions of the event. You just never know when you may be able to throw in some information you have about Africa that will impress the judges.

Above All – Take the Time You Need

When you study for final exams, you have two choices. You can organize your material regularly throughout the semester and study a bit at a time. Or, you can “cram” at the last minute, perhaps 1-2 days before that exam and get help from essay services. Students who choose either option can be successful and get good exam grades.

But preparing for the Academic Decathlon is different. It’s not like a final exam in history or social studies that covers a finite amount of material. It is an examination that covers all content areas. There is no way to “cram” at the last minute.

Fortunately, your team will have a coach who will prepare a schedule of work and study over a longer period of time. You can study and learn in a relatively stress-free environment, and this means that you will retain much of what you learn long-term. So, if you study a piece of literature without the stress of an immediate exam, that more relaxed environment allows you to absorb information, to think critically about the piece, and to “cement” your understanding.

Likewise, the longer preparation time will allow lots of practice for the subjective parts of the event – those speeches, the interview, and that essay. In these areas, it is practice, not study, that will make the difference.

Above all, you need to understand that you are a part of a team with a coach. While you will be scored on your individual performance, it is important that you have the mindset of being a member of a team. Each member’s accomplishments should be encouraged and applauded – that’s what teamwork is all about.

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