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Standardized exam idea is put to the test

A parade of college presidents will appear before a federal higher-education commission meeting in Boston tomorrow, and early signs suggest it will be a lively, even contentious scene. Texas businessman Charles Miller, chairman of the commission appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, has made waves by suggesting that some kind of standardized testing would help measure whether college students are taught well. There is no formal proposal yet, and Miller has stressed in press interviews that there would be no single test for every school. Still, the idea has alarmed many educators.

Susan Hockfield of MIT, who had lunch with the Globe editorial board last week, didn't mince words when asked about the testing notion. ''I think it's a terrible idea," said Hockfield, who is scheduled to testify tomorrow. ''Higher education needs help, but what is really broken is K-12 education. We need more high school graduates who can understand and do math." Hockfield, who was provost at Yale before she was tapped by MIT, went on to explain that the two schools, quite appropriately, teach very different things. ''I can't think of a standardized test you could use at both MIT and Yale," she said. Hockfield added that some of the most exciting courses arise out of professors' cutting-edge research, material that would never appear on a standardized test.

Hockfield's predecessor, Charles Vest, serves on the commission, and he wrote in an e-mail that he didn't think any of his fellow members, including Miller, wanted to mandate anything. ''Colleges and universities should more explicitly state their educational goals and determine how well they meet them," he wrote. ''But I am very skeptical that a single test exists or could be developed that would reasonably accomplish that across the wonderful diversity of American institutions."

POCKET CHANGE: The state auditor's office announced last week that it will launch a review of community colleges to determine whether professors are inappropriately earning extra money from teaching continuing-education classes even though they don't teach full course loads. Last month the Globe reported that nearly half of full-time faculty at Massasoit Community College sought time away from teaching a full load to participate in professional activities. Yet once granted the time, they picked up extra classes and earned thousands of dollars on top of regular salaries. The practice forced the school to hire part-timers to teach classes. Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci is awaiting an internal audit of the matter at Massasoit. ''The auditor also intends to review this issue at some other campuses to see if this is a problem that extends beyond this particular college," said Glenn Briere, a spokesman for DeNucci.

POD PEOPLE: Prospective students at Fitchburg State College will be welcomed this year in high-tech fashion. E-mails went out last week alerting accepted students that they had a special message awaiting them at a website. Once at the site, students download a ''podcast" -- an audio and video file played on a mobile device or personal computer -- that features President Robert Antonucci. In the video, Antonucci informs students they have been accepted and offers congratulations. ''Young adults are accustomed to changing technology and instant information. So this is an effective means to communicate with students," said Pam McCafferty, dean of enrollment management. Still, some old techniques die hard: Students will receive their acceptance letters and information packets by mail.

MOUNTAIN AIR: Douglas Sears, dean of the Boston University School of Education, was publicly named recently as one of three finalists for the presidency of Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. Sears's resume and application letter, posted on the Web, offered a peek into the usually secret world of presidential searches. In addition to his deanship and five years as superintendent of schools in Chelsea, Sears touted his work as assistant to BU President John Silber from 1988 to 1995. He added, ''It is hard not to be interested in an institution that blithely ignores marketing conventions, that hosts a traditional music festival, where students [are required to] work 15 hours a week." Sears isn't taking calls, but BU spokesman Colin Riley said the dean withdrew his application a couple of days before the provost of Ramapo College of New Jersey was chosen. Riley added that Sears had applied because he was asked to. ''He was not sure it was the right job for him," Riley said. ''He wants to continue his work here at BU."

E-mail tips to Campus Insider and the Ask the Teacher column run on alternate Sundays.

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