231. Memorandum From the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Personnel (Barnes) to the Under Secretary of State for Management (Read)1


  • Foreign Service Written Examination Cut Scores

Habib Committee recommendation B.5. was to give equal weight to the English Expression and Functional Background portions of the Foreign Service written exam.2 That was the practice until 1977, when a decision was made to give greater weight (60–40) to English Expression. There were two main reasons for the change:

—Dissatisfaction with the English Expression skills of recently hired FSOs; and

—Concern that the 50–50 weighting had an adverse impact on the number of women passing the exam.

It is not yet possible to assess whether the scoring change has improved the quality of Foreign Service drafting, but it has clearly been successful in reducing the difference between men’s and women’s passing rates on the exam. Between 1976 and 1977, the percentage of women passers rose from 7 to 17, while that of men rose only from 19 to 22, erasing more than half of the difference in successful test performance.

While substantially improving the test performance of women, the change in weighting has only marginally affected the number of [Page 938] minority candidates passing. The following table shows the results for the 1977 and 1978 exams, according to whether the 60–40 or 50–50 weighting is used.

EE FB 60/40 % EE FB 50/50 % Difference at 60/40
December 1978
Total passers 2,368 100. 2,462 100.
Men 1,796 75.7 1,930 78.4
Women 572 24.3 532 21.6 +40
Minorities 80 3.4 87 3.5 − 7
December 1977
Total passers 2,333 100. 2,337 100.
Men 1,717 73.6 1,792 76.7
Women 616 26.4 545 23.3 +71
Minorities 58 2.5 63 2.7 − 5

(It is worth noting that almost all of the difference in minority pass rates is accounted for in the sub-categories of Hispanics and Asian-Americans, many of whom are not native speakers of English. Also note that the numbers above for minorities include some double counting that cannot easily be eliminated.)

Based on the above, it is fair to conclude that changing the weighting back to the pre-1977 practice would have an adverse impact for women, but little impact for minority candidates. It would be most unwise in the context of the Department’s defense in the women’s class action suit. A different device must be adopted to increase the number of minority exam passers. The Habib Committee has proposed use of a differential cut score (recommendation B.8.) and we agree that that method should be tried. The Board of Examiners for the Foreign Service has also agreed to employing a differential cut score, although with some reservations—apparently no other USG agency uses differential exam cut scores for affirmative action.

But regardless of what means is adopted, recommendation B.5. on re-weighting does not stand up to analysis and should be rejected.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Under Secretary for Management (M), 1978–1979, Box 9, Chron December 7–10, 1979. No classification marking. Drafted by Lawrence Lesser; cleared by Gershenson, Ronald Palmer, Michael Conlin, Burroughs, and Clint Lauderdale.
  2. The Habib Committee’s report and recommendations were not found. Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Philip Habib chaired the Committee to Review Recruitment and Examination for the Foreign Service, established: “(1) to consider whether existing entry requirements and procedures for new officers meet the needs of the Foreign Service and accord equal opportunity for all, and (2) to recommend changes in the requirements and procedures as deemed desirable or necessary.” (Department of State Newsletter, March 1980, p. 18) The report was completed at the end of 1979, and 55 of the Committee’s 63 recommendations were approved and endorsed by Secretary Vance. The remaining 8 were modified. The Committee wanted to make sure that the Foreign Service was representative of the United States, and to that end, it examined recruitment procedures, the written examination, the Affirmative Action Junior Officer Program, the Assessment Center, and the Affirmative Action Mid-Level Entry Program. For more on the Committee and its report, see “State Steps Up Its Efforts on Affirmative Action,” and “Questions and Answers on Habib Committee Report,” ibid., pp. 16–19. See also Document 238. For a list of the report’s recommendations, see Document 246.