History of the Academic Decathlon

Robert Peterson“There ought to be more rallies and a decathlon of studies for all students” were notes handwritten in pencil, found in the late Dr. Robert Peterson’s belongings. Peterson was a B17 pilot in World War II who was shot down over Italy and became a POW in Stalag Luft One for 18 months. History tells us the concept for the Academic Decathlon was created in this German POW camp. By 1981, Dr. Peterson’s small pocket journals written in pencil in a POW camp would be transformed into an academic decathlon competition.

In the late 1960s, Peterson campaigned for his idea of an academic decathlon. It would include all high school students, regardless of their grade-point averages. The aim was to get the average student to participate and work up to his/her potential.

In 1968, the first Orange County academic decathlon was held. In 1981, United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) was established as a formal national organization, and in 1982 the first United States Academic Decathlon was held, with eighteen states participating. The United States Academic Decathlon has since become the premier academic competition in the nation.

— Source: 2014-2015 Academic Decathlon Curriculum Overview

Reach and History in Nebraska

There are 41 participating state competitions across the United States as well as two international teams from China and London, England. In 1984, the Nebraska Academic Decathlon was founded to create the best academic competition with the state of Nebraska. This year represents the 30th anniversary of the program’s existence in the State of Nebraska.

The state has 50 participating high schools across all of the sizes of schools. These schools represent all sizes and locations of schools from the Large School Division schools in eastern Nebraska to Very Small School Divisions in western Nebraska. An interactive Google map below shows the locations of all of the participating high schools in the state of Nebraska.

Format and Competition

The Academic Decathlon is an educational growth program for high school students. The program requires participating students to develop an understanding of a specific curriculum and take tests in the areas of Art, Economics, Language & Literature, Math, Music, Science, and Social Science. In addition, they must write an essay, present both a planned and impromptu speech and complete an interview.

The topic of the program and competition changes on a yearly basis. The curriculum for the 2019-20 school year In Sickness and in Health: An Exploration of Illness and Wellness.

The unique feature of this program is a participating school may have students from all grade levels working together to earn a school score. In addition, it is designed to include students from all achievement levels. Thus, students must fit into the following categories:

  • At least two students must have an “A” grade level average (3.75 – 4.00 GPA) on academic courses in the last two years.
  • At least two students must have a “B” grade level average (3.00 – 3.74 GPA) on academic courses in the last two years.
  • At least two students have have a “C or Below” grade level average (0.00 – 2.99 GPA) on academic courses in the last two years.

Although all students take the same tests, the students in a given level are competing with only other students at that same level — ie. the “A” grade level students compete with other “A” grade level students for medals in each of the ten events.

In most states, the schools are divided by the Grade 9 – Grade 12 enrollment. Thus, a state may have the following breakdown — Large School Division, Medium School Division, Small School Division, and Very Small School Division. Although a school can have as many students in its Academic Decathlon Program as it desires, only twelve students can test at the Regional and State Final levels. In order to encourage the participation of the smaller schools, a school only needs a Regular Team of six students to participate. All schools are encourages to have an Alternate Team of six students.

There are several benefits for participating students. These benefits are:

  • The obvious benefit is the enhanced degree of understanding of an additional curriculum.
  • With students of different grade levels working together for a team score, it is an excellent example of teamwork and cooperation which mirrors many life situations.
  • They have a chance to earn both medals and scholarships.
  • Many universities and colleges grant admission points for each year a student participates in the Academic Decathlon.