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Academic Tourney's Black Mark: A Cheating Scandal

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Chicago

Somehow, the conversation at one of the corner tables in the banquet hall has led to mention of the transcontinental railroad.

And the words bubbling up from the buffet line are far from typical cafeteria talk among teenagers. A boy wearing a trench coat and baseball cap stands beside a chafing dish brimming with curly french fries and proclaims, "This will not appease me."

The 350 high school students gathered here recently for the national finals of the U.S. Academic Decathlon are used to setting themselves apart. They swallow pages of text along with their corn flakes. Rapid-fire thoughts stream from their lips along with nervous laughter. In silence, their gestures hint that their minds constantly are at work.

"They are very unique individuals," Kitty Nielsen, the coach of the academic team representing Arizona, said. "I'll leave it at that."

Whispers of Steinmetz

This contest offers these offbeat teenagers an outlet for their bursting mental energy--a competition that sometimes moves as fast as their thoughts. But as they came to Chicago late last month, imagining it as the site of their crowning achievement, the destination also stood as a reminder of this competition's darker side--a cheating scandal that has rumbled through the city's schools and raised troubling questions for organizers of the 14-year-old academic tournament.

For the most part, the events at the posh Palmer House Hilton hotel here ran without a hint of anything beyond a collection of studious youths bent on literally outsmarting their peers at the next table. The teenagers talked about knocking off the perennial favorites from California and Texas. They discussed new music and the author Sinclair Lewis.

With thick textbooks in tow, the students turned the lobby into a giant study hall. Two teammates waiting for an elevator were chatting. They agreed that one of their fellow students is superficial and egotistical. But they found themselves sparring in a word game over whether another student fit the same description.

"I didn't say he was like him; I said they had a lot in common," one pointed out. "Oh," his companion said. "O.K."

The decathlon crowd takes a little getting used to. At a sandwich buffet to open the events, a speaker from Chicago welcomed the students, reminding them that the city is home to the world's tallest building.

As he heard the words "Sears Tower" instantly rise up throughout the room, the man at the microphone said with a toastmaster's smile, "I know I don't have to tell you what that is."

Only one landmark here seemed to stand taller during this weekend of competition. It was spoken of among students and adults here mostly in whispers: "Steinmetz."

Whitney Young Targeted

Just as most of the state teams here hoped to knock off the teams from Texas and California that have claimed the title every year of the national contest, the Illinois decathlon teams have taken aim at Whitney Young High School.

Despite its many challengers, the acclaimed magnet school here has won the state title every year since 1985.

But last year, Steinmetz High School, the 2,300-student anchor of a blue-collar neighborhood on Chicago's Northwest Side whose most prominent alumnus is Hugh Hefner, beat the elite champion in one portion of the competition for the first time. This year, the Steinmetz team built on its scores and on March 11 upset the longtime champs.

From the moment the scores were announced, Larry Minkoff, the coach of the Whitney Young team, said there were widespread doubts about the outcome. Not only did Steinmetz win, but their scores were unusually high. Of the top 12 scorers on the mathematics test given to 5,000 students nationwide, six were from Steinmetz High School.

When Whitney Young team members formally challenged the scores, they were called snobs and sore losers.

"The whole city called us wimps and whiners and sour grapes," Mr. Minkoff said. "These kids made a decision to go against public opinion and learned more about justice than you can in any textbook or essay."

Beyond Foul Play

But in the weeks since mid-March, confessions and details emerging from Steinmetz High School have gone far beyond any foul play the team at Whitney Young High School might have suspected.

One college freshman admitted that while she was at Steinmetz last year, Gerald Plecki, an English teacher and the academic team's coach, fed team members answers to one portion of the test. Initially, Mr. Plecki and school officials admitted to cheating on the 1994 test, but they vigorously denied any irregularities in this year's competition. Mr. Plecki resigned, and the team was asked to take the test again, a request it refused.

After one-on-one interviews with team members, Principal Constantine P. Kiamos announced that Steinmetz students had cheated this year as well, and the school was stripped of the title.

More recently, inquiries by officials of the school district and the decathlon indicated that a Steinmetz student got a copy of the Illinois test from the DeVry Institute of Technology shortly before the state competition was held there. The test allegedly was given to Mr. Plecki, who distributed it to the team members.

Then at the state competition, a Steinmetz student apparently took the name tag of a judge in the speech contest, posed as the official, and awarded his highest score to a classmate.

And while the Chicago public schools have proclaimed the mystery solved, officials of the decathlon program gathering here at the site of the scandal said they are just beginning to tackle a range of test-security issues.

Beyond the integrity of their exams were questions more commonly heard on the football field or the basketball court--whether the pressure to win has eclipsed the loftier goal of promoting the sharpness of young minds, whether the ambition of coaches is unfairly exerted on teenagers eager to impress, and how top officials could have been caught so off guard.

The competition's organizers here said they have failed to see their event as anything so cut-throat as high-stakes poker or Olympic figure skating.

"This is about promoting learning and lifting the profile of the student so that instead of being the nerdy kid, they are somebody who has achieved something," said John H. Foley, the president of the national decathlon's board of directors.

"We never looked at the decathlon as something that someone would cheat at," he said.

Managing the Pressure

Don't tell that to the students who fight to get on their school's decathlon teams and spend hours throughout the school year drilling on such questions as "If the DNA code reads TAGCAT, the RNA would read?" or "The group to which the painter Millet belonged is known as?"

The decathlon, born 25 years ago in California as a statewide competition, includes nine-member teams, usually juniors and seniors. Each school must have three students who have "A" averages, three with "B" averages, and three "C" students.

The nine students compete in speech, interview, essay, mathematics, science, economics, literature, fine-arts, and social-studies tests before facing off in a match known as the Super Quiz.

In its short history, the competition has produced several state dynasties, such as the Whitney Young team in Illinois. And while concentration and focus are the keys to winning, there are especially intense feelings about winning at the state level and knocking off the reigning champ.

"You always kind of hold a little dark spot in your heart, waiting for the favorite to fall," said Mr. Minkoff, a psychology teacher.

"Pennsylvania is pretty sick of us," said Jon Cristol, a junior at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia. The team has won the state decathlon title six of the past seven years.

"We're bad people," said teammate Eatai Roth, a sophomore.

Training To Win

Many of the teams who arrived here in the days before the competition had regimented schedules for their students. Team members from one school dropped their bags as soon as they were inside the hotel's revolving doors. The coach checked his watch and said he expected to see students turning in practice essays by 10 P.M., about two hours later.

The students said it was late in the day. One mentioned that they had yet to eat supper. The coach looked exasperated. "We've got to get ready," he finally said.

After the first night of competition, Ms. Nielsen of the Arizona team promptly saw her students to their rooms for final preparations. In three days here, the teenagers have ventured only so far as the Art Institute, two blocks from the hotel. Ms. Nielsen has planned some sightseeing for Sunday.

"We have been chipping away at the state level for five years and working all year for this," said the social-studies teacher at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. The team practices five hours a week in addition to the class period each day when they gather. Weekend sessions are scheduled, and the pace picks up as regional and state contests near.

"They have to give 100 percent commitment and make choices to keep certain activities and drop others," Ms. Nielsen said, noting that jobs and other extracurricular activities are no-no's for the decathletes.

Andrew Meltzer, a senior on the Pennsylvania team, said, "We're not going to win, but we respect the teams from California and Texas and wherever, and we want to do more. Any pressure we feel is from ourselves and each other."

"Most of the pressure is self-inflicted," agreed Neil Campbell, also a senior.

"Self-induced," interrupted Pete Younkin, another teammate. "It's not self-inflicted, like you're injuring yourself."

"Self-induced," Mr. Campbell agreed.

In the end, California again took the title, with the team from John Marshall High School in Los Angeles coming in first place. Whitney Young went home with second-place honors.

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