Okay, so here's the deal.
NAQT has, for the past twelve or so years, run a high school national championship tournament. For many teams, this is their only national; for others, it's a second (or first, depending on chronological order) chance to prove their ability on a national stage after (or before, usually) another big national tournament. NAQT is a company of sufficient size and authority to declare a legitimate champion if it wants to run a tournament capable of doing so, with extremely well-handled logistics and a larger field draw than any other national.
It's becoming clear, however, that the NAQT HSNCT has some critical flaws that went unresolved this year, and will severely harm the tournament's legitimacy if they continue. I believe that NAQT does indeed want to give its largest trophy to a legitimate high school quizbowl championship team, and I understand that it wants to provide a fun tournament for all 100+ teams that show up. However, it's also true that over the past few years, NAQT hasn't come through with a tournament that's good enough for the teams most likely to win. Most of the top teams, and many other teams, have grievances with this tournament that will render NAQT unable to host a legitimate national championship if the policies of the company and the lower quality of HSNCT questions continue. I'll come out and say the following: I would like NAQT to be the best it can be for many teams, and I'm not personally threatening to leave and never come back, but as a member of a so-called top team, it seems as though the HSNCT questions were very unpopular among top teams in a way that has me worried about the company's future. When I go to HSNCT, I want to know that I'm in it to win a respectable high school trophy; I also want to know that I'm playing a field of nationals-quality teams that made it there on their own merits (or on wild-card bids that show their effort and love of the game). Both of those things were true this year - NAQT awarded a well-earned championship trophy to Wilmington Charter (congratulations, guys) and a well-earned second place trophy to Dorman (congratulations to you guys, too; that 600+ point advantaged final game was really impressive). The field also contained many nationals-level teams.
However, some of the top teams' grievances must be answered if they are to stick with HSNCT and not jump ship in the coming years, leaving NAQT with 100+ mediocre teams and a few good teams that want a trophy more than victory over a true nationals field. I'll start by saying that NAQT did get some things right this year: the elimination of list bonuses, 30-20-10s, and A/B/both or neither bonuses was a positive improvement. Even so, consider the following suggestions still apply (and most apply to regular season IS-sets as well). Here goes:
-First and foremost, the high proportion of non-academic (pop culture, sports, and general knowledge, which, put together, are colloquially referred to as "trash") questions and semi-academic (geography, current events, interesting general knowledge) questions needs to be significantly cut down. A national academic quiz tournament (from National Academic Quiz Tournaments, no less) should primarily test academic content, and many rounds felt as though they went up to 40 or 50% non-academic material. This made important games very swingy with less tossups on the big categories that the best high school quizbowl players study most. My solution for doing this would combine sports and general knowledge into the Pop Culture category and reducing them to fewer than 10% of the questions at HSNCT (as opposed to about 18% now), while Current Events and Geography would take up no more than 4 to 5 percent each (as opposed to about 7 or 8% each now).
-Second, (and this would help with players' perception of the first issue), the tossups and bonuses within academic categories should be more rigidly academic and more rigidly within their own categories. Cross-disciplinary giveaways were common at this tournament, and often rewarded a geography player during a history tossup, for one common example. The links between bonus parts were often tenuous at best (off the top of my head, the "people banned from traveling to certain countries" bonus in the finals comes to mind as rather bad). There is a difference between elements worth tossing up due to their significance in science (hydrogen, helium, carbon, uranium, etc.) and elements most notable for their name and atomic number (technetium, the element in the crossdisciplinary "111" tossup, etc.). The former can make good tossups; the latter cannot. Other tossups, especially in the science category, referred to people, devices, or weather phenomena (earthquakes? clouds?) that seemed anti-climactic at best and outright terrible at worst (did we really need a tossup on "purring" that gave its frequency in hertz?)
-Third, in conjunction with the former, it might make sense to increase the character limit on high school tossups to 500 characters (from 425), or something like 400 characters without spaces. Part of the problem with some tossups is that their short length led to difficulty cliffs and transparency, the latter of which made them easy to "figure out" without as much certainty behind them. Most other well-regarded high school question writing agencies (HSAPQ, PACE, high quality house writes) end up about a line longer than NAQT questions with pyramid-style descending difficulty and little outcry that the questions are too long. People pay for tournaments - national tournaments especially - so they can hear as much quizbowl as they can! (The argument has been made that getting through more tossups is a higher priority than having more information in each tossup. I don't see why the balance can't be re-struck towards slightly longer questions with a more uniform descent of clue difficulty, while still getting through at least 22/22 with good moderators.)
-Fourth, computational math questions (of the "Pencil and paper ready" variety) should be reduced significantly or eliminated altogether. I'm not going to rehash this argument here, but it suffices to say that these tossups aren't seen as anything like other quizbowl questions by top teams - the same top teams that graduate high-quality writers who would otherwise be interested in helping the company, but are alienated by math computation's presence. Between algebra, geometry, trigonometry, precalculus, calculus, and some linear algebra/number theory at the upper end, I believe there is enough academic mathematical content to be tossed up in a more conventional way if math computation were to be eliminated entirely. NAQT already does have tossups on mathematical subjects; my ideal fix would reduce math comp from 1.8/0 to 0/0 a game, increase theoretical math by .25/.25 or .5/.5 a game, and still have about 1.3 tossups to distribute among other academic categories (philosophy and social science).
-Fifth, if it's possible to reconfigure the system to do this, switch to a per-packet, rather than per-tournament, distribution of categories. Certain categories like social science and philosophy seemed entirely absent from many games, and the tendency for rounds to fluctuate widely in how academic they were was disconcerting. If that's not possible, make sure that every round has at least one tossup and/or bonus in each major category, and check each packet to make sure that the packet's distribution matches, with minimal margin of error, a correct fraction of the per-tournament distribution.
Well, there's where I stand. I had fun at this tournament, and don't mean to let my grievances imply that the tournament was entirely non-enjoyable. My apologies also for a lack of specific examples - once I have some amount of sleep and a final exam done, I plan to go through the set with more examples of things that went wrong and how to improve them.
Despite my frustrations, I'm more interested in an improved HSNCT than I am in losing faith. I'm willing to participate in the dialogue about how to improve it for the future in a reasoned and truthful manner, because I totally want the HSNCT to exist as a well-regarded national championship in the years to come.
Matt Jackson | Yale '14 | President, Yale Student Academic Competitions | Editor, BHSAT 2011-13 | VP of Outreach, PACE