It took several tries, but Michael Copeland is the proud owner of a high school diploma.

Copeland was one of only 29 students in Prince William County -- and fewer than 100 across Northern Virginia -- who did not graduate with his peers in June because he failed the state's Standards of Learning exams.

This was the first year graduating seniors had to pass six of the high school exams or tests from a list of accepted alternatives. Copeland, a star running back from the Gar-Field Senior High School football team, passed all his classes and, under the old rules, would have graduated with his classmates in 2004. But not this year.

He took the required SOL reading and writing tests repeatedly, as Virginia allows, but failed each time. Forbidden to walk across the stage at the school's graduation ceremony, Copeland stayed home rather than sit in the audience.

Copeland and his mother, Maria, pledged that he would keep at it, however. He took summer school classes, including an online reading tutorial, one of several components of Project Graduation, designed to help students like him who struggle with the tests.

By mid-summer, he had passed the reading exam. But he failed the writing exam again in early August.

Even so, Copeland left soon after to enroll at Garden City Community College in Kansas. He could attend classes there without his high school diploma and play football for a team that sometimes launches talented players on to four-year universities.

Once there, Copeland achieved a breakthrough. The school offered the ACT WorkKeys exam, a test that is supposed to simulate professional writing rather than classroom essays. It is common on community college campuses and also is accepted by Virginia in place of the SOL writing exam.

At last, Copeland passed the exam. His mother picked up his diploma from his guidance counselor soon afterward.

Of the students in a similar position in Prince William, 11 graduated after taking summer school classes, school officials said. An additional 13 plan to retake tests this fall and still hope to receive diplomas.

Throughout Virginia, state Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said, more than 2,100 students have graduated after receiving extra help through regional academies or online tutorials set up as part of Project Graduation.

"We expect that, when we have the final figures for the Class of 2004, we will not see any kind of dramatic increase in the number of students who did not receive a diploma this year," he said.

The state measures its graduation rate every year after students get a crack at summer school. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who has championed the remediation efforts, is scheduled to announce this year's numbers tomorrow, which will allow for comparison with previous years.

For Copeland, the future remains uncertain. After just days in Kansas, 1,500 miles from friends and family, he returned to Virginia. His mother said the experience was valuable but came too soon.

Copeland now is looking for a job but still plans to attend college. He said he will take classes at Northern Virginia Community College in the spring and has been talking with coaches at Erie Community College, in Williamsville, N.Y., where he could start next fall and play football as well.

Maria Copeland said that though she would rather not have gone through the ordeal, it did offer some lessons about persistence.

"What people can get out of this is to have that determination," she said. "Don't let anybody or anything get in your way or stop you from accomplishing your goals."

Michael Copeland eventually passed required exams and got his diploma. His mother said they learned not to "let anybody . . . stop you from accomplishing your goals."