Student Achievement

Scoring Dispute Casts Pall Over Texas Academic Decathlon

By Marianne D. Hurst — April 17, 2002 5 min read
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A bitter disagreement over which Texas school would represent the state in the United States Academic Decathlon ended last week with a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court just a day before the national competition began.

Lubbock High School, in Lubbock, and J. Frank Dobie High School in the Houston suburb of Pasadena had locked horns over which school had won the Texas Academic Decathlon and a chance to compete for the national title.

The two schools went head to head after discrepancies were found last month in how the teams’ scores were calculated in the state competition.

Lubbock High initially claimed victory and was certified as the winner by the state association. But an uncounted answer sheet that would have put Dobie High on top was later found in a test booklet, sending the two schools into a legal wrestling match for the championship title.

Last week, in a down-to-the-wire decision on April 10, the state supreme court overturned a ruling by a state district court judge that had supported Lubbock’s claim to the title. The high court’s action sent the Dobie team scrambling to find a flight to Phoenix, Ariz., where the national competition was being held April 11.

But the high court later that same day, ruling on an appeal by Lubbock High, determined that none of the courts involved had the right to decide the winner of an academic competition and effectively nullified a month’s worth of litigation. That final ruling left the decision in the hands of the Texas Academic Decathlon, which stood by its original certification that had crowned Lubbock as the winner.

Host of Complaints

Richard Golenko, who has been Dobie High School’s academic-decathlon coach for 17 years, complained that this year’s competition was one of most poorly organized events he’s participated in and charged that the state decathalon’s board had mishandled the entire affair.

“We were told conflicting stories from the beginning,” Mr. Golenko said. “They told us that the answer sheet had been lost, then that it was improperly scored.”

He also said that fellow coaches at other schools have complained about inaccurate scoring, judging problems, and significant time delays in the competition itself. “There’s a groundswell of discontent that goes beyond the issue we’re involved in,” Mr. Golenko said.

Neither state nor national decathlon officials could be reached for comment.

For his part, Principal Doyle Vogler of Lubbock High School said that the Pasadena team’s lawsuit would have great ramifications for the spirit of the competition in years to come.

“The feeling has now been brought up that you can bring a suit to try to force things your way,” he said. According to Mr. Vogler, many teachers no longer want to be judges, and parents have approached him to say they no longer want their children to participate in such contests.

Students compete in academic decathlons by taking written, multiple choice, and oral exams in 10 categories. The decathlon is an academic competition modeled after the athletic decathlon, pitting nine-member teams from high schools against each other in a battle of wits.

The complex case began shortly after the Texas state finals on March 1-2. Dobie High School officials decided that one of their students’ answer sheets had been improperly scored. They reported the matter to the state academic decathlon’s board.

Decathlon officials reviewed the issue and responded that a Dobie team member had failed to follow proper testing procedures and incorrectly submitted his answer sheet. Schools officials disagreed, noting that the student, a veteran team member who has taken 28 decathlon tests in the past two years, had never turned in a test improperly before.

After three weeks of appeals to the decathlon board, Dobie High officials took the matter to court. They filed a lawsuit against the Texas Academic Decathlon, demanding a rematch. A judge in Houston determined there was enough evidence of inaccurate scoring to warrant a rematch.

But Lubbock High officials filed an appeal, and the two school districts began a legal tug of war that found its way into courts from Amarillo to Orange County, Calif., where the national decathlon is based. Dobie was finally granted a retest, which eight of its nine-member team completed.

Because Lubbock refused to participate, Dobie was declared the winner. But State District Court Judge Tracy Christopher of Houston refused to certify the Dobie High team as the state champion, and a judge in Lubbock ruled that the decathlon officials could not force the Lubbock team to take the retest or strip the team of its championship status.

Dobie made an appeal to a state appellate court in Amarillo, which overruled the Lubbock court’s decision. Lubbock High School, in turn, fought back, and the case went to the Texas Supreme Court.

Worth the Cost?

For students at both Dobie and Lubbock high schools, the decathlon controversy has been a bitter experience. And the schools say they have incurred substantial legal fees, but they declined to elaborate on actual costs.

“This has not been good thing,” Mr. Vogler of Lubbock High said. He argued that that Dobie officials had no grounds to take the dispute to court because some of the Lubbock student papers had also been improperly scored. When the answer sheets from both sides had been corrected, he said, Lubbock still came out on top by 1 point.

School officials on Dobie High’s home turf, however, stand by their actions. In a statement issued after the final ruling, Superintendent Rick Schneider of the Pasadena, Texas, schools said that the district had merely “sought to obtain for [its] students a fair review of scoring irregularities and issues that surfaced during and after the state competition.”

About the only point both sides agree on is the stress the fight has placed on their students. Mr. Vogler said Lubbock High had been deprived of an unblemished state championship title. Dobie officials, meanwhile, said their team has tried to keep a positive attitude throughout the controversy.

“This is a hard moment for our students,” said Kirk Lewis, the deputy superintendent for communications for the Pasadena district, “but good news for Lubbock, and we wish them all the best.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Scoring Dispute Casts Pall Over Texas Academic Decathlon

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