FOR 26 YEARS, off and on, the only good news we could imagine about a separate department of education was that the Congress would refuse to create one. But now all that has changed. There is (no thanks to this newspaper) a separate department -- hereinafter to be known simply as the Department of Education, without the string of defamatory epithets. We know when we're licked, so the opposition will cease. We also know when we're in the presence of genuine good news. The nomination of U.S. Circuit Court Judge Shirley M. Hufstedler to be secretary of education is good news.

Even if she were not a person of such independence and intellectual class, Mrs. Hufstedler's nomination would be welcome merely on grounds of what she is not: she is not a part or product of that particular hustling educational bureaucracy whose prospective influence was one of the better reasons for opposing the creation of the department in the first place; she is not associated with that slice of the school "community" (everything is a "community" nowadays) that promotes the leisure and well-being of teachers and administrators to the exclusion of concern with the quality of education. She has a razor-sharp mind, a keen sense of fairness and plenty of insights into what federal intervention can and cannot do to make life better for the average citizen.

All this has distinguished her career in the law, propelling Judge Hufstedler to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and to perennial mention as the female most likely to be the first of her kind named an associate justice of the Supreme Court (a prospect that is still live). But these same qualities could also be supremely useful during her time as secretary of education, if she is confirmed. For if there are two attributes essential in anyone taking this job, they must surely be 1) a commitment to the pursuit of educational excellence and 2) an appreciation of the limits beyond which the federal government should not go in its interventions, especially where these concern the imposition of uniform, made-in-Washington national policies on the nation's schools.

An awareness of the boundaries that should not be crossed and a sense of the appropriately circumscribed role of the department itself in guiding educational affairs do not, however, imply a mute or super-discreet secretary. On the contrary, a good secretary of education will have plenty to say on all educational subjects and will be an advocate of the interests of the vast, far-flung and highly diverse American student body. On one preeminent and contentious subject in particular, we hope the new secretary will take a positive stand. We hope she will support the movement already picking up momentum around the country for state testing of teachers' competence. There is no more important issue in American education just now.