District firefighters received the results yesterday of their first promotional exam since 1984, after nearly half of its questions were thrown out because of complaints of security lapses and errors in test content.

The exam, which was ordered by U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey as part of a negotiated settlement to a 1984 lawsuit alleging racial bias in the fire department, will be a major factor in determining which firefighters will be promoted this spring, the first promotions since the suit was filed.

Administered Dec. 15, the test provoked an immediate outcry from firefighters, who said, among other things, that it was not properly overseen by proctors and that large parts were not based on District firefighting procedures.

As a result of the controversy, one section of the three-part exam was disregarded because a copy of it had been circulated among firefighters before the test. In addition, 48 of the 108 multiple-choice questions in another section were dismissed as irrelevant or not based on an approved list of study materials.

Although the third part of the test contained factual and typographical errors, battalion chiefs grading the exam decided that the answers were still relevant. Stephen A. Saltzburg, a George Washington University law professor who was appointed to administer the test, approved the use of the results.

"What I have learned is you can't assume anything will work right," Saltzburg said yesterday. "That may seem shocking, but that's reality."

In a report evaluating the examination process, Saltzburg criticized the three-member team commissioned by the city in 1986 to design the test and said results were salvageable only because of special efforts by battalion chiefs to revise the grading process.

"The deficiencies that have been noted are deplorable and particularly difficult to understand" given that the test committee "had years to inform itself of the District's procedures and to refine tests," the report said.

The city paid $500,000 to the committee of consultants, Richard Barrett, of New York; Larry O'Leary, of St. Louis; and Carl Holmes, of Oklahoma City.

Test scores, along with training and seniority, will be the primary factors in promoting 41 firefighters to sergeant, 39 sergeants to lieutenant and 21 lieutenants to captain, a department spokesman said. Many of those who will be promoted are already serving in those ranks in an acting capacity.

At firehouses throughout the city, the posting of the test results did little to assuage firefighters' anger.

"I still think it was a poorly written exam, no matter how well I did," said one firefighter who scored near the top of his class. "A lot of the questions weren't based on material that we've had, and I think there were problems with security."

Test takers were also annoyed by a delay in annoucing exam results, which were supposed to be circulated Feb. 1 but were not posted until after 6 p.m. yesterday.

"When something comes out, it's usually 6 o'clock Friday, when you can't get to an agency head or whatever. It certainly doesn't help morale," said Lt. Thomas Tippett, the president of the firefighters union, who scored near the top of the list.

The union originally considered asking Saltzburg to nullify the test because of the errors it contained and because of complaints of security lapses during the exam.

Saltzburg's report confirmed that monitoring during the test was lax, but said no firefighters made specific allegations of cheating.

After holding two open hearings with firefighters and meeting with the chiefs who were grading the exams, Saltzburg said, he concluded that the modified test was valid.

"They were able to educate me completely about every detail that could have been wrong," Saltzburg said. "I don't think another test has been scrutinized so carefully in the history of the District."