The U.S. government is considering junking its most important civil service career examination, the PACE, because of a lawsuit charging that the exam favors whites over blacks and Hispanics for appointments to the best professional and administrative jobs.

In place of PACE (Professional and Administrative Career Examination), agencies would be directed to construct new tests still seeking qualified personnel but aslo guaranteeing that higher numbers of minority group members would end up with jobs -- that roughly the same percentage of minority-group applicants as white applicants would succeed. Thus, if half the white applicants got jobs, half the black and Hispanic applicants would be expected to get jobs also.

No final decision has been made yet on the proposal to phase out PACE over five years in favor of alternative tests.

But the proposal has been drafted by attorney of the Justice Department, Office of Personnel Management and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for consideration by their superiors and other government agencies as part of a proposed consent decree to which the government agree in order to settle the anti-discrimination suit. If a consent agreement isn't approved by all parties, the case would go to trial.

The case has far-reaching implications for the U.S. civil service. PACE, given since 1974, is the chief test by which people who have completed college or the equivalent get into geovernment service, at the GS-5, Gs-7 and sometimes Gs-9 entry levels, on the professional and career tracks leading to the best and highest-paying positions.

It was designed to be an objective test of a person's ability to handle professional and career jobs. It is similar to a college entrance examination.

In the middle 1970s, about 225,000 people a year took the exam and roughly 10,000 ended up being selected for jobs. In 1979, 137,725 took the test and 6,283 were selected for jobs. How well you do on the exam determines not only whether you are eligible for a job at all but also how high you are ranked on the pass list, which influences whether government officials will select you.

On Jan. 29, 1979, a group of Hispanics and blacks who had failed to pass the April 1978 PACE sued the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in U.S. District Court here before Judge Joyce Green, alleging that the exam had an adverse impact on them and was discriminatory.

Statistical information showed that while 42 percent of whites were scoring 70 or above (without special extra points), the pass level, only 5 percent of blacks and 13 percent of Hispanics who took it got over 70.

They charged that the exam contained hidden cultural bias that hurt blacks and Hispanics, and didn't really measure the capacity for the 118 classes of jobs for which the test examined applicants.

Officials assert that the OPM could have conclusively rebutted these charges by showing that the level of performance on the job was directly related in actual practice to how well the person did on the test. But, in fact, it had actually done this for only four of the 118 job classifications.

And according to Barry Goldstein attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs, the test has "an enormous racial impact" but doesn't really measure how well people will do on the job. He said the goal must be to devise tests which identify all genuinely qualified people without bringing in extraneous matters. If that were done, he said, the minority-group success rate would rise far above what it is now.

Under the consent decree being considered by the government, PACE would be gradually phased out over five years.

In its place, each agency would devise new tests focussing much more directly on the qualifications needed for the job.

Under the tentative proposals in the consent decree, if half or three-quarters of white applicants who took the test eventually got jobs, then half or three-quarters of black or Hispanic applicants would be expected to pass and got jobs. If this proportion wasn't met, then the EEOC, the courts or some other agencies to be determined later would reexamine the test to determine whether the results were based purely on the real professional qualifications of the applicants or there was still some hidden racial bias in the new test -- in which case it might be thrown out and still another devised.