WHEN MY DAUGHTER FINISHED HER FRESHMAN year at Johnston High School, in Austin, where she was a student in a liberal-arts magnet program, I paid a visit to the college adviser to find out her class ranking. “She’s thirty-seventh in a class of 750,” he told me. “That’s good,” I said. “Top five percent. Good enough to get into the University of Texas.”

“Not really,” the adviser said. “We know from experience that only 250 freshmen, at most, will graduate. So think of her as thirty-seventh out of 250. That’s not in the top ten percent.”

That was bad news—both for my daughter and for the state of education in Texas. I did some quick calculations. There were around 100 freshmen in the magnet program. Presumably, almost all of them would graduate. This meant that of the remaining 650 or so students in her class—those who lived within Johnston’s regular boundaries, almost all of them Hispanic or black—fewer than 150 would graduate with their peers. If his prediction was accurate, the dropout rate at Johnston would be 67 percent. In fact, the rate was even worse: Only 223 of the original 750 graduated.

Think of all the schools with demographics similar to Johnston’s in Texas—in every city and along the border—and imagine what the statewide dropout rate must be. Would you believe one percent? I don’t believe it either. Yet, when the Texas Education Agency (TEA) calculated the state’s official dropout rate for 2000­2001, the year my daughter graduated, that’s what it came up with. This number is bogus and everybody—except perhaps the TEA—knows it.

My daughter is a senior in college now, and I had all but forgotten this incident until I read “I Hate School!”—Mommy X’s account, beginning on page 138, of the changes that have buffeted public education in the time that my generation went from being students to being parents of students. Social change, as Mommy X observes, is overwhelming the public schools, and the statistic that best explains what is happening is the dropout rate—the real one, that is. Not the TEA’s.

What is the real dropout rate? Every calculation but the TEA’s—which requires schools to determine the reason why students left school and allows many exceptions for classifying dropouts as non-dropouts—produces a much higher rate. Perhaps the simplest way is to figure out, as I did for Johnston, how many students enter the ninth grade and exit the twelfth grade as graduates. A San Antonio research group says that the statewide class of 2001 lost 40 percent of its members between the ninth and twelfth grades. Another method is to figure the percentage of Texans of recent high school age (18­24) who do not have a high school diploma. The U.S. Census Bureau says it’s 29.3 percent. Meanwhile, the state continues to embrace an absurd system that tries to define away the problem.

How does the TEA come up with its fictitious number in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? As I found out when I was a member of the Campus Advisory Council (CAC) at Johnston, TEA is more concerned with counting than with kids. During one meeting, we learned that the school had decided to hire a dropout prevention specialist. This sounded like a necessary, if belated, step: By using poor grades and erratic attendance as benchmarks, the specialist could identify which students were most likely to become dropouts and try to keep them in school. Or at least that’s what I assumed the dropout specialist would do—until he came to a CAC meeting to describe his work.

He brandished a sheaf of pages of names of students who the school district said had been enrolled at Johnston but were no longer attending. His goal was to find out where those students were. If he could ascertain that they were attending another school in Texas or that they had moved out of state or that they were in jail or deceased or were pursuing a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, the TEA would not count the departed student toward Johnston’s dropout rate. So the specialist spent all day on the telephone, trying to track down students who had left Johnston, never to return, instead of trying to retain students who were still in school but on the verge of dropping out.

This seems to make no sense, but in fact it makes perfect sense if you understand the accountability system by which Texas schools and school districts are rated. A dropout rate of more than 5.5 percent brings with it a rating of “unacceptable.” The easiest way to reduce the dropout rate is to locate the “leavers,” as the TEA calls them, and assign a benign cause for their departure (such as getting a GED). The incentive, then, is for school officials to game the system by writing in causes for departure that don’t count toward the dropout rate. The Austin Independent School District paid a $5,000 fine in 1999 for falsifying dropout rates after a criminal-fraud investigation found that there was pressure from higher-ups to report reasons for leaving that did not trigger classification as a dropout.

The most infamous example, reported by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes, is Sharpstown High School, in Houston. The school reported a zero dropout rate for 2001­2002 despite having a student population that included many children of poor immigrants—and despite losing 463 students during the school year. All of the departed students were reported to the TEA as having left for reasons that exempted them from being counted as dropouts. The revelation tarnished the reputation of former Houston superintendent Rod Paige, whose success in reducing the dropout rate had helped him become George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education.

A lot has been said in recent years about the improvement in the Texas public school system, as measured by standardized tests, but the good scores may just be a manifestation of the dropout rate. Many of the lowest-achieving students leave the system; at Johnston, the CAC heard from the principal that during the previous school year, 50 percent of the ninth graders had flunked all four core courses—English, math, science, and social studies. In late June the Census Bureau reported that only 77 percent of Texans over 25 years of age have a high school diploma. It’s a familiar refrain by now, but Texas ranks last among the states, well short of the national figure of 85 percent. State demographer Steve Murdock has said that educational attainment is the best predictor of income, so it comes as no surprise that dropouts earned an average of just $19,000 in 2002. Their unemployment rate has been 75 percent higher than the rate for graduates. They are more likely to end up in prison: Two thirds of the state’s inmates don’t have diplomas. The well-known Texas economist Ray Perryman has estimated that a 10 percent reduction in dropouts would produce 175,000 new Texas jobs and $200 billion in economic output.

This is the point in a policy story at which the author, having proved the seriousness of the problem with alarming statistics, proceeds to provide the solution. I wish I could. But the worst thing about the dropout dilemma is that nobody knows what to do about it. The politicians’ approach has been to treat the dropout issue like educational performance, by holding schools and school districts accountable for reducing dropouts, as they are held accountable for teaching kids to read and to compute—skills that can be measured on standardized tests. But skills are taught in the early grades, when children are malleable; the dropout crisis occurs in high school, when, as you may have noticed, kids have minds of their own. Some dropouts leave because they want to—or have to—make money. Some leave because they get pregnant and have to raise a child. Some leave because of frustration over the current obsession with rules and discipline and zero tolerance. Some are convicted of crimes. Some leave because they fall too far behind academically.

Most of these reasons are beyond the school’s capability to fix. They are the result of societal problems—poverty, teenage pregnancy, depression, alienation, parental indifference, drug use. To hold schools accountable for circumstances over which they have no control makes no sense. So why do we do it? When I asked an education consultant I know, he said that before counting dropouts became part of the accountability system, schools did nothing to stop kids from falling through the cracks; indeed, school administrators were only too willing to see them go. They regarded dropouts as problem kids who had trouble learning and trouble obeying the rules and trouble scoring well on standardized tests. Those who didn’t drop out were shunted into vocational programs that were a sham: outdated equipment, menial work.

The hope was that by holding schools accountable, you could change the behavior of high schools. But, the consultant went on to say, high schools are impervious to change. Things that might work—individual attention, keeping in close contact with families of potential dropouts, and arranging partnerships with career programs in community colleges—are seldom tried. If he had his way, urban high schools would be much smaller than they are today, and there would be more alternative schools where students who don’t fit into discipline-oriented high schools could learn at their own pace. But then you wouldn’t have big-time football and marching band and cheerleaders and all the other extras of mega high schools.

I don’t know what the ultimate solution to the dropout crisis is, but I do know where to start. The Texas Education Agency must stop concealing the extent of the problem with phony numbers. Otherwise the public pressure for change will never come.