Re: Standards in testing
For various reasons my dojo has seldom had testing dates during recent years, and students' formal rank is not all that tightly correlated with ability anymore.
Far from making things less competitive, I think this actually leads to a bit more covert competitiveness. We allow a good deal of peer teaching and advice--more, I think, than most dojo. I find that I really want to classify my fellow students: A's advice is worth considering only when it makes sense, B's advice needs to be heeded even when it seems counterintuitive. This is not perfectly correlated with ranking, of course. We had one novice who really understood ma'ai (boxing background) and his seniors learned to listen to him on that topic. But in general, a first kyu's advice is more reliable than a fifth kyu's. If the ranks go away, you have to establish this some other way; in my experience, by a certain amount of jostling and testing. Straight seniority doesn't work for us because someone who trains four times a week learns so much faster than someone who trains twice a month--and some people just plain learn faster than others.
I wish we'd do more testing, because I think we'd get along more smoothly if we didn't periodically try to compensate for the lack of accurate ranks by, well, testing each other. I also think it leads us to undervalue the abilities of shy students: they don't catch the eye, and you can miss their improvement without the focus of a test. This is exacerbated by having multiple people teaching, so that no sensei sees the students every day.
For organizational reasons, our tests are conducted by people from outside the dojo, so I have no idea what the criteria are beyond a list of techniques. This is not very satisfactory to me. All of our sensei like to teach beginners regular forward rolls, which seem easier and less dangerous to the neck than cross-rolls, but the testing criteria for fifth kyu call for cross-rolls. When I was tested, all six of us fifth-kyu candidates went ahead and did regular rolls in defiance of the criteria; and we passed, but I don't think this is ideal.
So this would be my advice to anyone drawing up testing criteria: Be realistic about what you actually do. Criteria should formalize your natural teaching progression, not attempt to change it. In other words, don't ask for things because you have an uneasy feeling you should be teaching them at that level: ask for the things you actually do teach and build on. For the same reason, if at all possible the criteria-writers should work very closely with the actual teachers.
I don't care for minimum time requirements: sooner or later you'll be looking at a case where they just don't make sense for that particular student. We have people who seem to appear only for testing, but I figure that's their lookout--if they can somehow learn the material, that's okay. It's not as if their ranks matter all that much--if they aren't training with us, there's no question for those ranks to settle.