Washington — It was the new Reagan administration's first major action on the civil rights front, and some observers were wondering if White House would order a sharp turn toward conservatism. But it did not.
With only a few changes, Attorney General William French Smith this week approved an agreement drawn up by the Carter administration to guarantee more professional jobs for blacks and Hispanics in the federal bureaucracy. Just weeks earlier the Reagan transition team had criticized the accord, saying it set quotas for minorities.
It's a straw in the wind on civil rights, but perhaps not a decisive indicator: The outgoing administration accepted the agreement 11 days before President Reagan took office, and a top Department of Justice official says legal precedents probably would have prevented the new administration from repudiating it entirely.
The revised agreement answers a suit brought by minority applicants who had failed a civil service hiring exam. It calls for overhauling the federal system for filling 118 management-level government jobs ranging from tax law specialist to museum curator.
Filed as a "consent decree" Feb. 24 in federal district court here, the plan would throw out the five-year-old Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE) and replace it with 50-to-60 separate testing systems. The new tests would be more closely tied to the specific skills needed in each job category.
PACE screened out almost all minority applicants, charged the suit. In January 1978, or example, fewer than 1 percent of blacks and only 2.6 percent of Hispanics scored high enough to be hired. The success rate for white taking the test was 13.2 percent.
One change the new administration made was to cut back the time for operating under the new hiring rules. The period will now be three-to-five years, not five-to-nine years, as first promised.
Also, the Reagan administration has dropped a paragraph which appears to set a 20 percent quota for hiring minorities.
Richard T. Seymour, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit, said the revised plan is just as "reasonable" as the one signed in January. "As best we can figure out, there are no substantial changes," he said, "and it helps to get the Reagan administration's wholehearted backing on this."
Implementing the decree, which must be approved by the federal court, will be difficult, officials say. "Obviously it will be more expensive," said Marjery Waxman, general counsel for the Office of Personnel Management which oversees federal hiring.
Each year the government considers 150,000 applicants for only 5,000 openings in the jobs covered by PACE. The written exam was considered economical, costing only about $10 per applicant to administer.
Other types of exams, including oral testing and structured interviews, cost far more. Under one system devised by the Social Security Administration a panel interviews job applicants. The cost per position filled is $10,000.
A source within the Office of Personnel Management voiced doubts that any newly devised test could meet the requirement of having no "adverse impact" on minorities.
C. J. Bartlett, professor of industrial psychology at the University of Maryland, agreed. "One thing we do know is that valid exams are difficult to come by," he said, estimating that it would cost $200,000 per test to devise them on a job-by-job basis. But he said that in his research he has found such tests t o have less of an "adverse impact" on minorities.