The following editorial appeared in The Washington Post on Friday:
Considering that 44 percent of fifth-graders score “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test, the organized confusion of the Spelling Bee is hardly the disorienting folly that it used to be. A new edition of that long-running event has thoroughly adopted the statistical rigor needed to find what’s going on. It also recognizes that perhaps—perhaps—less is not more when it comes to stimulating schoolchildren’s academic curiosity.
The idea was to use a computerized system, called the Scripps National Spelling Bee Advanced Key, to pair contestants in the preliminaries with a word that was considered more difficult than the one they had just spelled correctly. The alternative, of course, was a spelling bee held in the arena and with more nerve-wracking standards. Nevertheless, the computer exchange turned out to be a credible, boring guide to choosing of words that meant something. It might benefit the program to offer more severe selection criteria, such as narrowing it to 10-to-12 words.
The randomness of guessing which word the Scripps bees is trying to evoke also did little to entice students to be willing to race against time to spell even more difficult ones.
The level of competition might be too low—though that is a possibility for children of all ages. The Scripps Bee is typically judged by people who have no idea whether a challenger is even smart enough to enter. To some extent, that’s understandable. But after 40 years of the event, it is become something of a cliche.
Words like “Obamaphone” and “obscurus” might seem thoroughly geeky to some. But the list of words on spellcheck should alert parents and teachers alike that the abilities of today’s children are not just matching up with the abilities of kids from other times. The results indicate that where to concentrate teacher-minded training is as much a business as a beauty contest. The Spelling Bee is no longer a test of intelligence—or even a test of spelling.