ONE OF THE MOST controversial of the Carter administration's parting shots was the signing of a consent decree that, in response to allegations of racial bias by a group of Hispanic and black complaints, would phase out of the PACE (Professional and Administrative Career Entrance) examination used by the federal government. In earlier editorials, we argued that the consent decree would debase the procedures for selecting candidates for entry into the Civil Service merit system, by requiring that new tests be tried and discarded until one were found that guaranteed that black, Hispanic and white applicants would pass the test in roughly the same proportions in which they happened to take it.

In a letter printed on this page today, Douglas Huron, former senior associate counsel to President Carter, argues that our interpretation is incorrect because the decree requires only that new tests be tried until one is found that either 1) ensures proportional passing or 2) can be shown to be "job-related"; that is, a good predictor of subsequent performance on the job.

We disagreed with this line of reasoning before, and still do. On the basis of the precedent established by the consent decree, if it is accepted unmodified by the court, it will be impossible in fact, if not in law, to establish that any test is job-related. Internal guidelines set forth earlier by the Carter administration create the presumption that a test is inherently biased if racial groups taking the test do not pass it in approximately the same proportion as they take it. Any subsequent test adopted will thus be subject to legal challenge by other plaintiffs just as PACE was and, on the basis of the PACE decision such attacks are almost sure to succeed, unless proportional passing is achieved.

This is because, contrary to Mr. Huron's contention, PACE was shown to be a good predictor of actual job performance for the four largest PACE job categories covering 35 percent of all the people hired through PACE. The predictive power of the test was shown by administering it to people actually in these jobs and comparing their scores with supervisors' ratings of their performance on the job. The other PACE job categories are too small or geographically dispersed to allow use of this method -- although PACE's usefulness for these categories was established using other, widely accepted statistical methods.

Nonetheless, the plaintiffs argued, and the Justice Department agreed, that PACE had not been sufficiently "validated," as this kind of procedure is called, to overcome the presumption created by the very high rates of failure among blacks and Hispanics. Since there are no other suitable methods of establishing test validity for PACE-type jobs, it seems inevitable that, under the decree, tests will be discarded until some procedure is found that ensures proportional passing or, under the decree's terms, until 20 percent of an agency's employees are black or Hispanic. And, of course, the decree would install, as Mr. Huron notes, an even more direct form of quota system for the next nine years -- five years after the four-year period during which PACE is to be phased out.