A teenage boy in a red T-shirt and rumpled dark hair stares straight into the camera with a look of exaggerated perplexity on his face. "There are just so many courses, and then there are SOL tests!" he exclaims.
"Yeah, I know! I have to pass six," responds a girl standing next to him, looking equally confused. "Or was it four? I think it's six."
The two are Virginia students, acting in a state Department of Education video that arrived at every school district in the state last week. The video is part of a statewide effort to drill students and their parents on new graduation requirements.
Starting next year, high school students must pass at least six Standards of Learning exams or acceptable alternatives during high school or risk not receiving a diploma.
Officials said they cannot repeat the new rules often enough for this year's juniors, the first who will need the tests to graduate.
"We want to make sure the parents and students are as informed as they can be," said Tim Lucas, director of guidance at Loudoun County's Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn. "Sometimes, they need to hear it more than once for it to sink in."
At schools across Northern Virginia, guidance counselors said they have been sending letter after letter to parents detailing requirements and acceptable alternatives to passing grades on six SOL tests. The topic comes up at parent meetings and in monthly newsletters. Some school systems have put together PowerPoint demonstrations and posters to hang in high schools.
The state video comes with a colorful brochure and a score sheet to help students chart their progress through the requirements. Both feature the slogan "2 + 4 in 2004," referring to the two high school English SOL exams and four additional exams students must pass to earn a standard diploma next year.
Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Department of Education, said he hoped that the video would help students and parents understand the flexibility in the new testing system. Pyle said the state has also organized several training sessions for guidance counselors to make sure that they know the system inside and out.
In addition, state officials aired a special training program on public access television, which local school officials could tape and replay for further training.
Guidance directors said that the new system is more complicated than the old and that the finer points will be lost on students and parents if counselors don't repeat the information many times.
School officials are working to make sure that students know about the lists of tests that can be substituted for SOL exams. In addition, counselors must explain differences among modified, standard and advanced diplomas, each of which require students to pass different numbers of classes and tests.
They must also keep in mind that the "2 + 4" formula applies only to students who will graduate in 2004, 2005 and 2006. After that, students must pass specific SOL tests in math, science and history, in addition to English, to graduate.
"Even our parents who have been aware of this from the beginning find it confusing," said Carol Zimmerman, director of guidance at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg. "We ourselves still need to keep looking back -- if you're in ninth grade this year, what will you need to graduate?"
Some express concern that if parents and students find the system too confusing, they may tune out when school officials explain it.
"It's complicated, and the rules have changed," said Janice Leslie, principal of Herndon High School. "I find that when I talk about SOLs and verified credits, people's eyes glaze over. You can just seem them thinking, 'She's talking about that again; let me get out my newspaper.' "
To clear the confusion, many schools are sending personalized status reports to 11th-grade parents to let them know which tests their children have passed and which they still need to graduate. Leslie said Fairfax County is exploring sending such a letter to all juniors this spring; Loudoun and Arlington counties have done so.
At Prince William County's Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, 11th-graders received individual status reports in the mail in October.
In addition, students got a second copy this week when they met with counselors to pick classes for next year. "That's two things . . . that alert them to their status," Guidance Director Cheryl Robinson said.
Schools across the region are also identifying students who have failed SOL exams and may be in danger of missing graduation. The state allows students to retake any test needed for graduation. Teachers are working one-on-one with students who have failed tests in hopes of pushing them above the pass mark.
In Arlington, Superintendent Robert G. Smith recently proposed spending almost $200,000 next year to send every student who has not passed four SOL exams by the end of the sophomore year to summer school.
Officials said it is hard to count now how many students might be at risk because most do not take the required English reading and writing tests until the end of junior year.
In most school districts, keeping track of which students have passed which tests is a painstaking process. Some guidance officers said it involves sifting mountains of paperwork, which takes time away from other aspects of their jobs such as career and college counseling.
Officials in some school districts, including Fairfax and Loudoun, have been working on computerized systems that could produce SOL reports easily. Until such systems are complete, the work must be done by hand and is made more time-consuming because the stakes are so high.
"It's just easy to make a mistake," Leslie said. "It's tiny little print. It's adding. It's going down line after line. If you miss something, it could mean no graduation."