UNDER THE TERMS of a consent decree made final the week before last, the federal government must stop using the Professional and Administrative Career Entrance examination (PACE) to screen applicants for many professional and administrative jobs. PACE--like the previous test that it replaced in 1975--was attacked as discriminatory by minority groups because the passing rate for blacks and Hispanics was much lower than the rate for whites.

Since the consent decree requires that, for a period of at least three to five years, minorities be hired in roughly the proportions in which they apply for jobs, the government must seek a screening method that produces the required result and yet retains some appearance of the objectivity upon which merit selection is presumably based.

In hiring professionals, the federal government faces difficulties that most private employers don't have to cope with. Civil service protections make it almost impossible to correct hiring mistakes by firing poor performers--or even to prevent them from being promoted. Rigid government pay and promotion policies also make it hard to compete with private industry for the most qualified minority job-seekers.

One agency, the Social Security Administration, has already phased out PACE and replaced it with a procedure that emphasizes previous work experience and ability to get along with other people. Minority hiring has increased greatly, but quality of hires has slipped badly, according to the General Accounting Office. It reports that the new workers learn slowly, cannot conduct necessary client interviews and quit frequently--often with complaints that the job is too tough. That's bad for worker morale and productivity. Social Security is now considering reintroducing some sort of general aptitude test--if it can find one that meets the consent decree's terms.

Another agency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, has had better luck with its new procedures that rely on applicants' self-evaluation of their experience and ability in doing work like that done by FDIC's bank examiners. FDIC, however, hires relatively few people, and it is aided by the requirement that applicants have passed several academic courses in accounting--a better test of needed ability than the general PACE requirement of a college degree in any subject. Moreover, while FDIC minority hiring rates have increased, the passing rate for minorities is still only half that for whites. This means that FDIC's test will not meet the consent decree's requirement of near-equal passing rates.

The dilemma here is in trying to ease hiring rules in a system that makes it very hard to get rid of anyone simply for substandard performance. Perhaps the best answer at this point is to move away from the notion of a hidebound, tenured civil service. The main objection to aptitude tests such as PACE is that they are not good enough predictors of job performance. That being the case, why not let performance on the job be the real test? That would mean not only relaxing the standards for hiring, but also making it much easier--and much more in a supervisor's best interests--to weed out those who don't make the grade. Having lowered the barriers on the way in, the best policy now may be to lower the barriers on the way out.