Only a handful of Loudoun County students did not receive high school diplomas this month because they could not pass Virginia's Standards of Learning exams, as required for graduation for the first time this year.
After years of preparation and speculation, officials reported that only seven of the 2,133 seniors who finished the year passed their courses but did not graduate because of standardized test scores. An additional 87 students did not receive diplomas for other reasons.
Fauquier officials said this week that not a single student in that county was barred from graduation because of SOLs. About 660 students received diplomas, and educators said they have not yet compiled figures on how many did not graduate because they failed courses.
Educators in both systems attributed the tiny number of students tripped up by the tests -- well under 1 percent in Loudoun -- to hard work, not just on the part of teachers and students, but also by school counselors, who carefully tracked the progress of each senior and monitored those who appeared to be in danger.
K. Anne Lewis, Loudoun's director of guidance, said she was "thrilled" with the county's numbers.
"I'm disappointed for the seven," she said, "But if this is where we are out of more than 2,000 graduates, I think this is wonderful."
Sandra Mitchell, associate superintendent for instruction in Fauquier, said that if schools are teaching the curriculum on which the tests are based, students should pass them and parents should expect to see low numbers of failures.
"You teach, you expect students to learn and you expect them to demonstrate that learning," she said.
But educators have not always predicted this outcome. When the tests were introduced in 1998 with dismal pass rates, some predicted thousands might not graduate this year, when state officials declared diplomas would be tied to test results. Although numbers have been coming in slowly from school districts throughout the state, officials have said they expect the situation everywhere to be far better than once feared.
Students take the exams in third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school in English, history, math and science. This year, they must pass six of the high school exams to graduate, including both a reading and a writing exam.
State officials have injected flexibility into the system since its introduction. For instance, students can take the tests as many times as needed to pass. Educators in Loudoun and Fauquier said they were administering retakes to help some students on the edge until the last week before graduation ceremonies.
In addition, students who have failed a history or science test can receive credit from their local school board if they receive tutoring from teachers, take the test again and come close to passing. There is also a list of alternative tests students can use to obtain the credits, including Advanced Placement exams and career licensure tests. Just this year, the state Board of Education approved an alternative to the SOL writing exam called the ACT WorkKeys test.
On the WorkKeys test, students listen to taped messages and then must write sentences that summarize the information. In Fauquier, 10 of the 11 students who took the test passed, Mitchell said. Lewis said she had no numbers in Loudoun but that several students struggling with the SOL writing exam found success on WorkKeys.
"I think WorkKeys tests writing, but tests writing in a different way, more in the business sense," she said.
State officials have promised an in-depth analysis of this year's graduation rates to study the effects of the SOL testing. They said it will include information on how many students obtained credits through means other than simply passing SOL exams.
They will also look to see whether there is any evidence the tests spurred some students to drop out before reaching the end of senior year, as some critics have charged.