On Monday night, the contest rules for the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee were released. Much of the bee will operate as usual, but there are a few huge changes. Some will help keep the Bee on an upward trajectory, and some may not (in my opinion), but it will certainly be interesting to see how these new rules play out.
First, the good change--instead of the hard copy Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, the official source for words is Merriam-Webster Unabridged (the online edition). This change is long overdue because it provides an opportunity to make the Bee harder--the online version has many new words in it that are too new to even be in the addenda of the hard copy, which means there are more usable words than ever. Also, from a speculative point, the change wouldn't have been made if the organizers weren't planning on using new words, so spellers would be well advised to brush up on the words marked with a red box labeled "NEW" in Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online.
Next is a change that I view as somewhat neutral. Instead of multiple choice, spelling words on the written tests will be handwritten without choices. This may make individual words harder for spellers. However, it is good to remember that everyone is in the same boat. Although the tests might be harder for Speller A, they will also be harder for Speller B and Speller C, which means that the approximately equal impact on everyone will reduce the average score. A reduction of the average score will also mean a reduction of the cutoff score, which means that there is no real impact on any given speller's chances of making it past a cutoff.
I've saved for last a change that a few people like, but many dislike fervently. I personally agree more with the latter group. This year, between the morning and evening portions of the finals, the ten or so surviving spellers from the morning will take an additional 24-word Tiebreaker Test--12 written spelling words and 12 multiple-choice vocabulary words. In the oral portion of the evening finals, there will be the usual 25 round limit once there are 3 or fewer spellers. If they reach a point when it is mathematically impossible to declare a single champion by the end of the 25 rounds, officials will halt the bee and declare a champion based on whose score was higher on the Tiebreaker Test among the remaining (two or three) participants. I strongly dislike this rule for several reasons. First, at its purest, the spelling bee should be about spelling, and this quite clearly has the potential to differentiate a champion from a runner up on the basis of a single vocabulary word. It is, after all, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, not the Scripps National Spelling and Vocabulary Bee. I'm not opposed to vocabulary in the preliminaries, but vocabulary plays arguably too much of a role this year. Also, these extreme measures to try to get rid of co-champions (although co-champs are still possible if there's a tie on the test) are not the right way, from my perspective, of trying to declare a single champion; the best way to do that would be to remove the cap of 25 rounds and let the spellers duke it out until someone wins outright.
There are, however, changes to the Bee each year. Some of us may like them and some of us may not, but they do happen, and as long as there is a spelling bee there will be new rules. That's a sign of a living event that is actively evolving to fit its circumstances. That doesn't mean every rule change is always necessarily good, but new rules could be worth experimenting with. Scripps certainly has a difficult job when it comes to adapting the rules, and they should be applauded for continuing on their quest to keep the event fresh and new each year.