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The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester (Mass.), March 7, 2014

It's hard to define what we want in an incoming college student. There's more than one answer.

Still, to help colleges select freshmen, tests such as the SAT set out to measure some combination of accomplishment, ability, and potential for success.

It's a work in progress.

Changes for 2016 aim to reduce stress among test-takers while offering them "worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles," according to the College Board.

So far, so good. But one anxiety-lessening change is that the penalty for guessing wrongly will be eliminated. The College Board explains the change as encouraging students to give the "best answer they have," rather than leave a question blank because they're unsure. But a test on which students are better off taking a chance when they aren't sure lends a game-like quality, and will provide less accurate measures of students' true knowledge.

Penalizing incorrect answers gives appropriate toughness to the assessment, and conveys that exactness is expected when moving into college and adulthood.

On the other hand, we approve of the decision to test more real-world vocabulary. The SAT is legendary for presenting obscure words that might measure experience with Latin or French — or flashcards — better than it conveys reading experience or overall verbal facility.

We are sorry to see the writing portion so extensively revamped. Not only will the essay become optional; scoring will focus on the ability to analyze presented source material, rather than on the more telling and challenging — though subjective — qualities of coherence and command under pressure.

The main messages of the SAT's slate of changes will be lost on future test-takers sitting down with their No. 2 pencils, or at keyboards once computer-based testing becomes available next year. But that message is important: Standardized tests will always be imperfect. They will never earn a perfect score with critics.

All we can ask of these tests is that they set their aim, be upfront about their limitations, and do the best they can — the same qualities we seek in all students and admire in achievers.

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald, March 5, 2014

Maine has one of the highest percentages of volunteer firefighters in the country. But their ranks are dwindling, as training requirements, duties and the number of calls have increased.

The outcome of this double whammy was all too evident during a house fire in Hollis. Only three people initially responded to the blaze, and although everybody got out safely, the structure was a total loss.

This shortage in personnel has become a nationwide problem. And just as there's no one reason for it, there's no one solution to it. But studies have yielded many suggestions for attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters, centering on regionalization, recognition and financial benefits.

These and other ideas should be the focus of a joint effort by Maine's fire departments and local, county and state officials to develop and implement measures to address the dearth of recruits. Public safety depends on it.

About 95 percent of Maine's fire departments are made up entirely or mostly of volunteers. So as the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide continues to decline (it's down 13 percent since 1984, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council), many Mainers' first line of defense against emergencies feels the impact.

What's causing the shortage? More people work out of town, making them unavailable to respond to fires in their hometowns. More families rely on two wage earners, cutting into the time for volunteering. More calls are coming in, including an increasing percentage of emergency medical reports.

There's also the training commitment: To become certified in Maine, a volunteer firefighter needs 244 hours in the classroom, as well as homework, and training in everything from handling hazardous materials to operating fire equipment.

How to help? Elected officials could set aside funds for incentives like retirement stipends, tuition breaks and better protective clothing and firefighting equipment. For their part, fire departments themselves could put in place junior orientation programs to recruit members and recognition programs to retain them.

Regionalizing fire protection is a more long-range, systemic change that could be a boon for struggling towns. They've already turned to mutual aid fire departments, which agree to respond by request to emergencies in other communities. Expanding on this concept, there could be county fire departments that break down large geographic areas into manageable sections.

Acting on these ideas won't be easy: Governments at all levels are pressed for money, and collaboration among municipalities is a tough sell in a state with a history of local control. But changing frameworks are needed in changing times — especially when lives are in the balance.

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