Arlington school officials are investigating whether teachers at Washington-Lee High School improperly coached students for the Virginia Minimum Competency Test last month by giving them test questions in advance.

School Superintendent Arthur W. Gosling said he asked for an inquiry into possible rule violations in the administration of the test after a parent called him last week with allegations that it was used improperly.

More than 400 Washington-Lee students, most of them 10th graders, took the test Feb. 4 and 5. Students must pass both the reading and math portions of the exam to graduate. If they fail the first time, they may take the test again.

"I regard improper administration of tests as very serious, but we have an allegation and that's all we have at this point," said School Board Chairman Gail H. Nuckols.

"I am convinced there wasn't any malicious intent on the part of teachers to circumvent the tests," said Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, which represents most of the county's 1,000 teachers.

Washington-Lee Principal William Sharbaugh said yesterday that after interviews with everyone who administered the tests, "I find there has been no wrongdoing whatsoever as far as the minimum competency exam is concerned."

But program assessment specialist John L. Crowder, who is interviewing teachers, administrators and others at the high school, said he is still looking into the matter. "I have not completed everything I feel is necessary to draw that conclusion," he said.

He said questions about how the test was given appear to be "a very narrow concern" involving one or two teachers. Crowder said he expects to complete the investigation today or tomorrow.

Elaine Grainger, supervisor of testing for the Virginia Department of Education, said teachers receive copies of the exam several days before the testing date but that enclosed instructions advise them to keep the tests in a locked area.

At Washington-Lee, as in the county's other three high schools, both guidance counselors and teachers administer the test. State education officials send the exams to Crowder, who distributes them to a "test coordinator," usually the director of guidance, at each school. This year, he said, guidance directors received the exams Jan. 29, the Wednesday before the testing. Washington-Lee teachers got the exam Thursday or Friday, Sharbaugh said.

School officials said it is unlikely that teachers would be fired for improperly using the test. However, Nuckols said, "Probation is a possibility, suspension is a possibility."

In the past two years, officials said, two elementary teachers were placed on probation after investigations showed they had improperly coached students on a test.

Gosling said that if Crowder's investigation finds that some students were told of test questions in advance, "We'd have to notify state [education officials] and do whatever is necessary" to invalidate the results and re-administer the exam.