The Center for Education Policy, an independent think tank, recently released a report that focused on the 20 states, including Virginia, that have made passing a standardized test a requirement for high school graduation. The study also examined plans in Maryland, along with four other states, to introduce exit exams. The study found that although student performance on the tests has stabilized, many states are struggling to raise the scores of minority students. Keith Gayler, an associate director of the group and the report's lead author, answered questions from staff writer Ylan Q. Mui.

QHow do Maryland and Virginia compare with the rest of the country in providing help for students who are struggling to pass these high-stakes tests and to the educators who are trying to teach them?

A I think Maryland and Virginia compare favorably to other states. Based on our study, Virginia reports developing a wider variety of student supports than any other state with exit exams. They also have done more than most states to get the message out to students and parents about what these tests are and what kinds of assistance are available. However, it's not clear to me at this point how many students really have access to these services.

Maryland is just really gearing up for its new exit exam, but its planned supports are impressive, like a technology-based test for students who don't do well on traditional pen-and-paper tests and tools to help teachers figure out where students' gaps in learning are before they have to take these exit exams. Many states didn't invest in this kind of planning prior to giving their exit exams, and it's really hurt students in those states.

In what areas do you think the two states need the most improvement?

One thing that I would like to see happen [in Maryland] over the coming years are studies of how well the tests line up with what is actually being taught in classrooms. In Virginia, as with every state, I would like to see more minority students, students with disabilities and English [as a second language] learners passing these exams the first time that they take them. There's evidence that failing exit exams makes some students less motivated to achieve and perhaps more likely to drop out.

Last school year was the first time Virginia students were required to pass the state Standards of Learning exams to graduate. Despite much concern about the effect that would have on graduation rates, only about 100 students in Northern Virginia did not receive a diploma based on their SOL scores. What can Maryland learn from Virginia as it prepares to implement its own exit exams in 2009? I think one lesson is to have support programs in place as early as possible so that teachers, students and the public know that if students are to going to be asked to do more that they will be given the tools to do so. Also, officials in Virginia sent a strong message that they were not going to back down on the exit exam. That kind of clarity makes people take the exams more seriously because they don't think that this is just another in a series of reform efforts that's just going to fade away.

You talked a lot in the report about the challenge states face in closing the achievement gap between white students and some minority groups, as well as boosting test scores of poor and disabled students. What strategies did you find in your research that are working in Maryland and Virginia, or elsewhere? Educators often have a pretty good idea years ahead of time which students are going to have a hard time with these exams. The most promising strategies I've seen use this knowledge to help students earlier rather than later. . . . In addition, programs that provide plans to target students' specific weaknesses rather than broad "drill and kill" programs do more to address real learning needs and are more likely to lead to real learning gains, not just more students passing the tests.