Maryland's ninth-graders are all too aware of the stiff new challenge ahead: to earn a high school diploma, they'll have to prove their algebra smarts on a 140-minute examination.

"We're the first class to have to pass the big test," said Renaire Rivers, 14, an Algebra 1 student at Largo High School.

"You can't get out of high school without that," said classmate Cherise Payne, 13.

In recent years, when diplomas were not at stake for most test-takers, large numbers of Maryland students have fallen short of that goal. Just 54 percent of those who took first-year algebra last spring passed a state test with word problems, two-dimensional graphs and analytical exercises. In Prince George's County, only 31 percent passed, including 12 percent at Largo High.

To put it in algebraic terms, if y represents students in the Class of 2009 and x stands for those who pass the exam, then y-x equals the number at risk of failing to graduate.

So educators are pulling out all the stops to raise performance. Interactive TV algebra, a trial launched in August in Prince George's high schools, is a relatively new entry in the fast-growing field of distance learning. In many schools across the country, TV links have long been used to help students take classes unavailable at their own campus, such as Advanced Placement subjects or foreign languages.

One fall morning at Largo High, students were solving and graphing inequalities in an experimental class meant to help teachers and students alike. Video cameras and two banks of television monitors linked their room to others in Oxon Hill and Springdale as three teachers joined forces simultaneously in an effort to help more students master beginning algebra.

Maryland, joining Virginia and other states, is now pushing students to pass high school exit exams in mathematics and other subjects. And, experts say, Maryland's predicament echoes the nation's.

Sharif Shakrani, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which monitors education trends, rated the algebra readiness of the typical U.S. eighth-grader as "dismal." He said many are ill-prepared for high school math, especially students in large urban school systems who lack early exposure to algebraic concepts.

Some analysts say states must make elementary and middle school math more rigorous and push more students to take Algebra 1 before ninth grade -- a step embraced in Montgomery and Fairfax counties and elsewhere. Others say raising teacher quality should be the top goal.

"My personal view is, it's less about the curriculum and more about the instruction," said Francis "Skip" Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College and president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "It's all about teaching and the person delivering it."

Enter John A. Smith, a rookie math teacher at Largo High, and his tag-team teaching partners in companion classes at Oxon Hill and Charles H. Flowers high schools.

Smith warmed up all three classes with a set of inequalities, which are mathematical sentences that compare values, using symbols for "is greater than" ({gt}) and "is less than" ({lt}).

"Hello, Flowers, are you there?" he asked, checking his audio link with the school six miles north. He asked Oxon Hill students, 16 miles southwest, whether the graph for an inequality with the phrase "is greater than or equal to" has an open or closed circle around the critical solution point.

"Closed," the distant voices replied, because the comparison is inclusive. "Good job," Smith said, shading the circle. "All right, that's simple. Pretty easy. Mr. Sutton, I'm done with the warm-up. You can take over now."

Joseph Sutton at Flowers High, in his third year as a math teacher, appeared onscreen to review common errors with inequalities and negative numbers. "Switch the sign," Largo students called out when he divided both sides of an inequality by a negative.

Then Garnetta Dixon at Oxon Hill, in her seventh year as a math teacher, lectured on compound inequalities, comparisons joined by an "and" or an "or" that require a graph with two critical points. When not on the microphone, the two supporting teachers paced their respective classrooms and helped students individually.

Algebra 1 is taught almost everywhere, most often in ninth grade but with growing frequency in eighth or earlier. It is viewed as the most essential mathematics course in secondary education, the foundation for advanced studies and a gateway to college.

With interactive TV algebra, Prince George's aims to help mentor rookies like Smith and their students to more experienced instructors. Smith, 27, a former engineer at the National Security Agency, has math expertise but not a standard teaching credential. He lauds the initiative but frets for his roughly 100 students. Through October, he said, only about half were earning a passing grade. He said he was shocked at what his students didn't know when the school year began.

"In Chapter One, a lot of them were lost," Smith said. "Negative numbers, decimals. Fractions -- oh, my God. These kids had a very poor foundation in just simple arithmetic. A horrible foundation in algebra."

Maryland education officials said they are trying to shore up math learning for youngsters and adolescents statewide. Since 2003, they have promoted a new curriculum that spells out in detail the pre-algebra that students should master, grade by grade, in elementary and middle schools.

A typical sequence: In fourth grade, the state says students should be able to "represent numeric quantities using operational symbols" for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. In fifth grade, they should be able to "represent unknown quantities with one unknown and one operation." In sixth grade, they should be able to "write an algebraic expression to represent unknown quantities."

"Hopefully, there are no gaps now" in the curriculum, said Donna Watts, mathematics coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education. But she acknowledged: "There are places in the state that need a lot of help. We've got to do everything we can to help those teachers be the best they can."

Achievement, influenced by poverty and other factors, varies widely across the state. In Baltimore, 22 percent of algebra students last spring passed the state test, the lowest results statewide. Pass rates in Charles County (53 percent) and St. Mary's County (58 percent) were near the state average. Higher county scores were in Calvert (66 percent), Frederick (67 percent), Montgomery (68 percent), Anne Arundel (69 percent) and Howard (74 percent). Most students tested last spring were in high school (ninth grade or higher) and faced no penalty for failing. But some middle school students were also tested. For them, the scores counted.

By 2009, Maryland's graduating seniors will be required to pass algebra, biology, government and English tests or post at least a minimum score on each test and a combined passing score for all four. The minimum score, slightly below a passing mark, is a safety valve for students who fall short in one subject but excel in others. State officials predict that scores will rise when students realize the stakes. They will be able to take the tests repeatedly if necessary, and it is possible that the state will revisit the requirements in 2008 if too many students are in jeopardy of failing to graduate.

The D.C. public schools do not have an algebra graduation test, but Virginia does. In 2004 and 2005, passing a state algebra test was one option among several to earn a Virginia diploma. Soon the state math requirement will tighten. By the spring of 2007, students must pass one of three math tests (Algebra 1, Algebra 2 or Geometry), or an approved substitute, to graduate.

In 2004, 80 percent of Virginia students who took Algebra 1 passed the state test, double the 40 percent rate six years earlier. Skeptics say such large statistical jumps tend to overstate actual improvements. But Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the state put a "major focus on how algebra is taught," including work in elementary and middle schools, starting in the 1990s.

At Largo High, Smith's students face a long climb from this fall's review of simple equations and inequalities. By the end of the course, they will be expected to master and apply more complex operations: graphing linear equations, factoring polynomials and working with systems of equations.

Trayshawn Wright, 14, sitting next to Cherise Payne, voiced what many adults remember about the course: "I get it. But I get confused at times."

She said the effort would be worth it, though: "Algebra's very important. It's going to help you in the long run. You're going to need it for many things."

For example: "I want a diploma."

John A. Smith, a first-year teacher, answers questions during his Algebra 1 course at Largo High School. His school and two others are combining for interactive TV lessons.Maryland has set minimum scores that this year's ninth-graders must meet in the statewide test on algebra and data analysis before they can graduate. This question appeared on a past edition of the exam.Jonathan Lotson, 14, an algebra student at Largo High School, watches a bank of monitors during a telecast of instruction from Oxon Hill High.