More than 270 students at Edison High School in Fairfax have learned that a UPS conveyor belt in Kentucky ate their Standards of Learning exams.

A box containing hundreds of completed answer sheets for the standardized state tests disappeared at a massive United Parcel Service sorting facility in Louisville this month. Some Edison students will have to retake tests over the summer or in the fall because of the shipping accident -- the second in two years for the school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. More than 90 students retook tests last fall because a box of answer sheets was accidentally delivered to a private residence.

"It's like a theater of the absurd," Principal Greg Croghan said. "It makes you kind of wonder about the position of the stars during this part of [the] year."

The students took the exams with their classmates in May, and school staff members shipped their answer sheets -- covered with ovals completely filled in with No. 2 pencils -- to Iowa for scoring. But the box never arrived, prompting officials of Harcourt Assessment Inc., the San Antonio-based company that administers the SOL exams, to launch a nationwide search.

They tracked the missing box to the UPS central hub on the grounds of the Louisville International Airport, a high-tech complex so enormous that it covers the equivalent of 80 football fields and sorts an average of 84 packages every second. Then Harcourt dispatched a shipping expert from Texas to investigate.

Barred by airport security regulations from entering the facility, the Harcourt expert nevertheless persuaded UPS employees to shut down some operations at the 4 million-square-foot facility so they could scrounge through a series of nets slung below the conveyor belts, looking for loose answer sheets, Harcourt spokesman Mark Slitt said.

"This is not your average package and not your average shipment," Slitt said. "It's not like you lost a box of books or a birthday present, and you could just file a claim."

Through that painstaking process, 232 answer sheets were recovered, although a dozen were mauled so badly they had to be scored by hand. The remaining 327 sheets apparently were victims of the machine.

UPS employees are working closely with Harcourt and continue to look for wayward answer sheets, UPS spokesman Bob Godlewski said. He would not confirm Slitt's description of the recovery efforts, citing a company policy against commenting on interactions with customers.

Students in Virginia take SOL exams in the third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school. Starting this year, students must pass the high school reading and writing tests, usually taken in the 11th grade, along with four other SOL exams, to graduate from high school.

School administrators sent letters last week to students whose answer sheets were lost, and Croghan said he met Friday with dozens of parents. The school will hold retake exams twice this summer and again in the fall.

Croghan said the lost tests included numerous English Reading exams taken by high school juniors who must take it again to graduate. Also lost were Geometry, World History I and World History II answer sheets. None of the affected students were seniors who needed the test scores to graduate this month.

State schools Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary declined a request from Fairfax officials that the students be given a waiver for the tests, but the state has given the school $20,000 to offset the costs of readministering tests and providing tutors for students whose knowledge might grow fuzzy over the summer, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the department.

In a summer already packed with football, soccer and wrestling camps, Andrew Heller, 14, said he doesn't know when he can take another geometry test.

"After finishing school and having all your tests done and finding out that they lost one of the bigger tests you have to take, it just kills me," the sophomore said. "I don't know when I'll be able to study."

His mother, Michelle Heller, fretted over how her son, who received a C+ in the class this year, would do.

"Math is one of those courses that after you stop using it, you stop remembering it," she said. "We want them to make sure this doesn't happen again. I've got three more years in high school with him, and there's a potential of his SOLs being lost again."

Staff writer S. Mitra Kalita contributed to this report.