When the Carter administration negotiated--and the Reagan administration reluctantly accepted--a consent decree requiring abandonment of the competitive PACE exam for professional and administrative federal jobs, the civil service was left with few acceptable alternatives. The Office of Personnel Management has now decided on a replacement procedure that is probably the best that can be salvaged from what was essentially a bad agreement.

OPM has decided to abandon competitive testing for jobs previously covered by PACE for the next few years. There won't be many new federal hires. But if new recruits are needed, they will be selected from among black, white and Hispanic applicants in proportion to the numbers from each group that apply. Those selected will be given appointments outside the regular civil service. If they do well, after a year they will be eligible for promotion into regular jobs.

This probably doesn't strike you as a splendid way to develop and maintain a competent, merit- based civil service. It will be hard to curb favoritism in selecting applicants and even harder to ensure that strict and objective standards are applied in selecting candidates for subsequent promotion. It also establishes an unvarnished quota system for hiring certain minority groups--a precedent that is likely to promote future claims for preference by other groups. But for all its flaws, the procedure is far preferable to OPM's only other real choice--rigging a test so as to produce a predetermined result.

The PACE exam--like the test that it replaced in 1975--had been attacked as discriminatory because blacks and Hispanics were less likely to pass it than whites. The consent decree, which became final last fall, required the government to replace the PACE exam with a procedure that would ensure that blacks, Hispanics and whites passed in roughly equal proportions. The dilemma that OPM faced was that, as a four-year study by the National Academy of Sciences recently concluded, no standardized aptitude test-- however "unbiased"--is currently likely to come close to ensuring equal passing rates.

A host of historical and social factors can explain why members of certain minorities have, on average, lagged in developing those capabilities that are a good measure of likely performance in professional and administrative positions. Nonetheless, there clearly many minority applicants able to perform specific federal jobs as well. If the system can be made to work properly, letting candidates prove their abilities on the job--and making it easier to fire those who don't make the grade-- is a reasonable way to giver everyone an equal chance for a federal career.