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Company introduces MBA exam to test business school graduates

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Like the medical boards for doctors or the bar for lawyers, a testing company plans to offer an exam it hopes will someday serve as a measuring stick for business school students, giving students from second-tier schools a chance to compete with candidates in elite programs.

Universities and corporations are reacting cautiously.

''I'm a free market person, and if they want to enter the market to see how it will work and what the reception will be, I'll be interested to see that,'' said Jerry Trapnell, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and a dean at Clemson University. ''But I'm not making any predictions.''

The International Certification Institute, based in Mocksville, N.C., is undeterred. It is going ahead with a plan to offer the exam next April at sites across the country for a $450 fee, though it hasn't started taking applications yet. Unlike tests given lawyers, doctors and accountants, the exam will not be state-regulated.

The test was developed by W. Michael Mebane, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro business school instructor and a former vice president of the textile producer Unifi Inc., along with his mentor Bernard L. Beatty, an administrator at Wake Forest University's Babcock School of Management.

They have tried to produce a test that calculates an MBA candidate's understanding of financial reporting, analysis and markets, human behavior in organizations and other universal courses taught within MBA programs during the first year. Second-year business school students concentrate on specialized areas of study.

Mebane said the purpose of the test is to level the playing field for MBA graduates from programs that rank below the top-tiered schools, while providing corporations and businesses with a gauge to evaluate job candidates.

''Those who master the body of knowledge don't necessarily have the opportunity to demonstrate that,'' Mebane said. ''It is not measured anywhere.''

That's fine with a chorus of academicians, who fear widespread acceptance of a standardized test will result in the International Certification Institute setting the agenda for MBA programs.

''If places start to teach the test, that means the people in the testing center have become the most trusted judges of what constitutes an excellent education,'' said Ann McGill, deputy dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

At a time when the relevancy of MBA programs is coming under question, there is also the danger the exam might kill the diversity of graduate curricula, said Albert W. Niemi Jr., dean of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

''Some people may argue that MBAs are too narrowly focused already. The last thing we want to do is put on parameters that will force everybody into the same cookie-cutter,'' Niemi said.

Jonathan Lipsky, a first-year student at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business in New York City said the cost of the test, coupled with its optional nature, will probably discourage candidates from second- and third-tier MBA programs from signing up.

Conversely, students at the nation's highest-rated business schools will have no incentive to participate in the process, he said.

Mebane said he was partly inspired to develop the test when, as a textile executive, he hired a graduate of a ''top-five'' MBA program whose education proved of little value.

''His spreadsheets were beautiful, but his assumptions didn't make sense,'' he said.

Barry Honig, president of Riskon, a New Jersey-based executive search firm, said similar experiences may convince other corporations of the exam's worth.

''There are a lot of people who go to the non-brand name schools that do more than some of the 'A' schools in terms of practical business preparation,'' Honig said.

But Robert Steir, the chief executive officer of MBA GlobalNet, a New York recruiting service, predicts the exam will be a washout.

''Employers won't look at this at all,'' he said. ''And I can't see students paying for this unless they're very insecure in their job search.''

Pointing out that input from MBA students played a key role in the decision to go ahead with plans to offer the test, Mebane said critics are reading too much into the exam's impact.

''It's a tiebreaker, another tool, something for the recruiter to put into consideration,'' he said. ''It's certainly not the pre-eminent decision maker. No one is preposterous enough, except for deans, to believe we are thinking that.''



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