Friday, May 29, 2015

EVEN-STEVEN:  The 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie. So did the 2014 Bee.

Whether this is a problem, to me, isn't for folks like me to decide, because I remain perfectly comfortable saying that we finished with two equally-matched spellers, neither of whom was demonstrably better than the other, and that the only thing which could have determined a sole "winner" last night would have been arbitrary luck—a random, root-less word (Fijian? Welsh?) which one of the pair just hadn't seen before.

To me, it's up to the elite spellers, those of you who once had (and those still competing with) realistic aspirations of winning this thing: is a tie satisfying for you? Would you rather have extended the competition until one speller won, and one lost?  Because if the spellers are fine with ties, so am I.

Let's suppose we wanted to yield One True Winner, however. Obviously, one option is to have a longer, even unlimited Championship Words List. Have them spell-til-they-drop, all night long, until one random word trips someone up.

But I also want to point to two ways in which the Bee's structure may now be making ties more likely, and which could be modified:

The use of written tests to eliminate spellers, rather than additional live rounds in the afternoon, increases the likelihood that the best-of-the-best are the ones who make it through to primetime, while affording said students some margin for early error. Twenty-four was a perfect score in the semifinals multiple choice tests;  Vanya and Gokul scored 18 points each. (Heck: every student spelled at least one word wrong in the spelling semifinals, including two errors from Vanya; twelve kids did better than Gokul on the vocabulary questions.)  The competitors only had four live words to spell in front of a microphone to make it to primetime, one of which was essentially a gimme for every student.

It broke our hearts in 2007 when Samir Patel was eliminated around noon in his final competition on a word like clevis, as it does every time a four-or-five-timer goes down before primetime. (It looks like it was a harder round 5 than yesterday's.) But I do have to wonder if a Bee structured less around written tests and instead posing  more difficult live afternoon rounds would yield fewer super-spellers in primetime, and less likelihood of a tie.

More controversially, the Bee could consider whether the existence of such super-spellers is itself the problem  -- that students competing the national Bee four or five times, in addition to multiple North South Foundation and other events, are just too good for the Bee. (Put another way: that we all would have guessed Vanya and Gokul would be the final two is a bug, not a feature.) What if the rules restricted the National Bee to 6th-8th graders only, or to no more than 2-3 opportunities per student? You'd have finalists who were spending fewer years preparing for the Bee altogether (which may have other salutary effects), and a slightly lower caliber of competitors making its way to National Harbor. Again, I think you'd be more likely to see one winner through this path than the status quo, but whether this is actually a good thing (overall, or even on this specific question of reducing ties) is reasonably disputable.

But on this point, and on salutary effects, I want to go back to something Samir wrote for us in 2011 which has stuck with me -- the flipside of being Vanya and Gokul this morning. What if you're Samir, or Dylan O'Connor, or Katharine Wang?
The Bee, in general, was a lot of fun. There were a lot of 'first' experiences for me -- Scripps does a great job of making Bee Week revolve around socialization and fellowship between the spellers....However, as I kept returning, it definitely did become more 'stressful' and less 'fun' each year. [In either '06 or '07, during the actual competition days, all I ate -- for ALL of the competition days -- was a bag of Doritos and a can of Coke. That's how stressed I was.] That's definitely a result of me growing up and the media paying so much attention to me, not because of anything Scripps did. ... 
[I]n the spelling bee, there are words you do know and words you won't -- in '05, '06, and '07, I knew every word in the Bee except for the ones I missed.... Having all this pressure on me to perform definitely affected my enjoyment of the bee. In the first three years, I was sort of just riding the wave, enjoying the experience and the attention and the success. Even in '04 when I went out in the 5th round, I wasn't too terribly disappointed. But in '06 and '07, I was under a tremendous amount of pressure -- from myself, from the media, from even my family and friends. As I'd grown up a bit, I was taking the whole Bee more seriously -- you can easily see my personality change from watching the '03 and '07 bees.   
In '07, after I missed on 'clevis' and met my dad in the comfort room, I was actually okay -- I'd gotten so fed up with the whole thing that I was just glad it was over. I desperately wanted to win, but at that point in time, I was honestly just relieved I'd never have to study spelling again. 
Something to think about.


  1. victoria10:34 AM

    Having a first live round that is (from a competitive standpoint) completely irrelevant doesn't help either.

    On the one hand, I can absolutely see an argument for giving the vast majority of the spellers an opportunity to have a triumphant moment on national television. On the other hand, if this were any other academic competition at this level that were not televised, there's no way that that big a percentage of the preliminary rounds would be, for all intents and purposes, exhibition.

    98.5% of kids spelled their round 1 words correctly and that was the entire first morning. Making the first round closer in difficulty to round 2 would be competitively meaningful and pare down the field a bit to let them fit in some more live spelling; a large majority of kids would still be successful (~75% of kids spelled their round 2 words correctly). Three rounds that pare down ~25% of the field apiece on Wednesday would've taken only about 100 more spellers than the two rounds we had and would've left ~120 spellers standing for Thursday, before any other cuts they might choose to make with written rounds. Is that really too onerous a number to spell down with live rounds on Thursday?

  2. Marsha10:36 AM

    For better or for worse, they have also mostly eliminated exhaustion from the equation. Mostly, the kids are just sitting around waiting for their turn, and they spell only twice on the first day (one of which is a gimme), and twice on the second. Only the prime time spellers (which is a very small number of kids) have even a chance of spell-til-you-drop. There's no real sense anymore that the best live spellers are the ones who get to the finals, nor that they've run a gauntlet to get there. Maybe it's good that you're not putting the kids through that, but at its core, that's what a spelling bee is - spelling words, out loud, until someone is left standing. Only the final round actually does that. And without that, maybe we're not letting the element of luck - of seeing a word you've never seen before - come into play enough.

  3. Adam B.10:44 AM

    I have no problem with one written test, combined with two oral rounds, to get it down to 50-75 spellers for Thursday. I think seeing 280+ kids fail at the microphone is unnecessary. It's the second test which is the problem.

  4. victoria10:47 AM

    Second test was terrible, agreed.

  5. I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other on ties, but someone posted yesterday about the kids who went out yesterday due to their total score not having the opportunity to have a "losing word." Well, I thought about the fact that Vanya doesn't really get to have a "winning word" moment. She didn't know when she finished spelling her final word that it would BE her final word - or maybe she was keeping track and she did, but she still didn't get the moment of spelling at the microphone and then being called winner. Just a thought.

  6. Charles11:59 AM

    I'll note here that the creation of the Championship Word List came about because of the 1991 Bee, in which the final two spellers went round and round forever. I was on staff then, and the Bee, which was normally done by 5 p.m. or so in the pre-primetime days, was running into the evening. We nearly got co-champions that year, but after a break, the words got noticeably tougher, and Joanne Lagatta eventually won. (I believe that also was the first year that the last speller standing didn't have to correct a misspelling before receiving the final word.) It's sort of funny that the spellers have evolved to defeat the device created to end the Bee in a timely manner.

    Limiting the number of times a speller can compete in the Bee is an interesting idea. Three-time-repeaters were rare when I competed. The first fourth-timer arrived in the late '80s, but it seemed to be unusual for a while after that. Prior experience does offer an advantage, but I wonder if five years is just too much of an advantage (especially with the written tests/cutoffs lessening the opportunity for surprises). I was glad to see at least a couple of first-timers among the finalists this year.

  7. Genevieve12:29 PM

    I don't know that it needs to go as far as exhaustion, but adding a couple more rounds on Thursday afternoon would be a test of stamina as well as giving more opportunities for kids to see a word they don't know, and either be able to puzzle it out due to their knowledge of root words, or go out. I'd far rather have that happen then kids be eliminated on a second written test of vocabulary.

  8. BeeFan12:31 PM

    I seem to recall a 25-round (not -word) limit in use for a number of years. I remember it being mentioned in the broadcast of the 1997 Bee when Rebecca Sealfon and Prem Trivedi went on for so many rounds (Rebecca won in the 23rd round).

    As for the 5-timers, more power to them. Remember, winning the regional bee isn't a given: Sriram Hathwar would have been a seven-timer if he'd won every regional he competed in after his first win.

  9. Marsha12:55 PM

    I have no doubt that she knew when she spelled the word that she was at least a co-champion, but even then, she didn't know if it would be her "winning word" until Gokul did or did not spell correctly. Ties make things strange.

  10. David4:41 PM

    I was in the '95 NSB, and I think that year may have been the record for longest time on stage (at least for the 1st and 2nd place kids). The Bee that year started with all almost 250 of us on stage at the same time for Round 1. Three rounds of spelling the first day was about 8 hours on stage under hot lights. On Day 2, the 1st and 2nd place winners ended up sitting on stage under hot lights for another 8+ hours until the end. Day 2 lasted from 8 AM-6 PM when the winning word was spelled.

    In 1996, they changed the first day of the Bee by dividing the spellers in half (Group A and Group B), and having Group A spell rounds 1-3 first in the morning and Group B spell rounds 1-3 in the afternoon so they would be sitting on stage less time. It seems like day 2 in '96 was shorter too.