Business schools in the Washington area in the past have been something of the cardigan sweaters in the educational closet: They covered the subjects but they were no tuxedos.

But the schools have been working hard in the past few years to improve both their substances and their image -- and there are signs they indeed are making progress.

One significant prestige-builder being pursued vigorously is accreditation, notable for its absence among the area B-schools in the past. An exception to this trend is American University, which is taking the reverse-snob approach of eschewing accreditation, preferring instead to go a loner course it says is more flexible for both the school and the students.

And in a further sign of new-found respectability and polish, next month George Washington University will host a two-day MBA forum, one of six such regional gatherings devoted to recruiting students for Master Business Administration courses.

Among the 73 schools planning to put on workshops with professors, alumni industry representatives are GW, American, George Mason, Georgetown, Howard and Maryland universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

This is Washington's first MBA forum -- an indication, according to its organizers, of the growing interest here in advanced business education. The number of MBA programs offered by local universities and extension services of out-of-state universities is increasing. B-schools in this area have never ranked among the top in the country, but recent developments have been encouraging.

This past June, Howard's graduate schoold became accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, which is to B-shools what the Vatican is to the parish church. The University of Maryland's business school, which AACSB threatened to put probation two years ago, is carrying out reforms. UVA's graduate business school has an exciting new can. And Georgetown plans to start an MBA program in the fall of 1981.

Almost 50,000 MBA degrees were awarded during the past academic year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. That is more than double the number of a decade ago. Most of the growth came during the first half of the 1970's; the rate increase has since leveled off. The center predicts the number will peak at about 52,000 in the 1982-83 school year before declining. During the academic year 1977-1978, there were 1,060 MBA's awarded in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

In January 1978, The Washington Post reported critically on B-schools in the District, Maryland and Virginai. Only 18 percent of are institutions offering the MBA were accredited, compared with 23 percent nationally. In the intervening months, the deans of major graduate schools in this region report they have been working hard towards accreditation. American University is a maverickk in choosing an independent path.

Graduate schools that now have AACSB accreditation are those of Howard, Old Dominion and Maryland Universities, 1niversity of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and William and Mary.

The following is an update on the major graduate business schools: American University College of Business Administration

Two years ago the school, which had been working for accreditation, decided to forego it in an effort to be of greater service to the business and residential communities. Dean Herbert Striner explained that AACSB's inflexible requirement that three quarters of the faculty be employed full time would prevent American from using part time the talents of many first-rate active and retired business people in the region. So, with corporate contributions, American undertook a $500,000 revamping of its undergraduate business curriculm; the graduate level will follow. The part-time faculty will be increased to 30 percent.

"Large firms," he said, "feel typical undergraduate programs and many graduate programs don't meet their needs. Industry wants flexibility so that the graduates get the best shots at education."

Striner is a strong advocate of flexibility in the sequence of courses taught; i.e., allowing a student to take a larger sampling of business courses in the earlier years of instruction as a prelude to deciding on a major.

He also believes in so-called team teaching. This concept allows professors with nonbusiness degrees, such as a doctorate in socialogy, to teach courses like personnel management at the business school.

AACSB permits little latitude in these two sectors. However, Striner admits he may face difficulties from parents who protest American's lack of accreditation. Colgate Darden Graduate School of Business University of Virginia

In 1977, business school deans around the country rated Darden second-best in the southeastern region; it was not judged to have a national reputation. Its new dean -- Robert W. Haigh, who previously taught at Harvard and Wharton -- immodestly ranks Darden "fifth or higher [nationally, based on what] other professors tell me." (There have been no authoritative independent rankings of B-schools since 1977.) Moreover, he said placement office reports put Darden graduates' average starting salaries behind only those of Harvard and Stanford MBA's. (Last year's Darden median was $26,000.)

While the largest share of its graduates go to work in the mid-Atlantic states, more Darden MBAs are making names for themselves in the New York financial world. Ralph Degroff (Mba '67), senior vice president of Dillon, Read & Co., said Darden "prepared me reasonably well; at least I'm still here." He added that Harvard's reputation as the No. 1 supplier of MBAs to Wall Street is diminishing, but he still thinks more people from New York need to go to Darden to seek out graduates.

Haigh is a dream dean, one with extensive experience in both the academic and business worlds. Prior to reentering teaching in 1978, he served in an executive capacity at Xerox and Standard Oil of Ohio and as president of Sohio Chemical. Vistron Corp. and Solar Nitrogen Chemicals Corp.

Wearing his industrial hat, Haigh said companies often fail to offer MBA's sufficient challenges to retain them more than a couple of years.

Donning his mortarboard, the dean said business schools should pay more attention to training students for what they will be doing five or 10 years out of school. Among his goals: more emphasis on business ethics, more accent on leadership qualities, more recuitment of black students, strengthening of the doctoral program and more research, particularly the preparation of case material for dissemination to other schools as well. George Washington University School of Government and Business Administration

Two years ago the school faced the decision of whether to continue its large off-campus Master of Science in Administration (and about $1 million in tuitions it brought in annually) or abandon it to pursue accreditation. Scholarship prevailed, although the fact that federal grants go to accredited schools was not overlooked. Four fifths of faculty will be full-time professors.

Though Dean Norma Loeser sympathizes with Striner's criticisms of AACSB, she says the faculty is committed to achieving accreditation. The long process leading to accreditation began last July; she hopes it will be accomplished by 1982 or 1983. Howard University School of Business and Public Administration

The school's recent accreditation was its reward for four years of upgrading. Since 1976, Howard has added six more Ph.D.s to its faculty, stiffened entrance requirements, increased library holdings and scholarships for gifted students and improved its financial backing through corporate contributions. "But we've still got a lot more to do," said Dean Milton Wilson.

Howard's MBA candidates, according to the dean, are "swamped with interviews" by large corporations. This year's graduate received an average starting salary of $20,000. Wilson said in the nine years since its MBA program began, Howard has produced 35 vice presidents, five of them in large firms.

Philip Anthony (MBA '78), a native of Guyana, works as a credit manager in Chase Manhattan's international department. Anthony, who also holds an MA in economics, said his Howard MBA degree served him as well as if he had received it from an Ivy League school. University of Maryland College of Business and Management

Maryland was ranked fifth in the Southeast in 1977, but at the same time it was notified by AACSB that it would be placed on probation if it did not correct some defects. (The reforms affect the undergraduate accreditation if the undergraduate program is not accredited.) The number of business students has been cut from 5,000 in 1978 to 2,151 this year by classifying freshmen and sophomores as prebusiness students. However, gifted underclassmen can be accepted early for admission.

The grade-point average for entrance to the undergraduate business shcool has been set at 2.7 (out of 4) this year. The number of doctoral candidates, not 87, is growing. Told to increase its Ph.D. complement by 15 over five years, Maryland aleady has hired half that number, according to Mary Anne Sharer, director of master's progams. Also, within the past year, Maryland has created the Center for Business and Public Policy for MBA students planning on careers in public institutions. The changes were facilitated by a 25-30 percent increase in the college's budget, said Dean Rudolph Lamone. University of the District of Columbia College of Business and Public Management

The school aims at getting accreditatin by 1982 or 1983. "But even if we don't get it," said Dean William L. Crump, "the process of trying will help us to improve. Accreditation is important. Your colleagues all over the country judge you by it. If you're Harvard or even American University, you can go your own way and maintain prestige. But a new university [like UDC] can't."

Crump said UDC must upgrade its library facilities and hire Ph.D.s to teach accounting and computer science, although it is strong in doctorates in other fields.

Other District, Maryland and Virginia universities that have nonaccredited MBA programs are, according to ACCSB: Baltimore School of Business, Frostburg (Md.) State College, Gallaudet, James Mason, Loyola, Mount St. Mary's, Norfolk State, Southeastern, and Virginia Commonwealth.