LAST WEEK, Education Secretary Rod Paige broke his long silence in the controversy over the inaccuracy of Houston's school dropout counts - and missed a teachable moment.
He understandably defended Houston schools' storied academic reputation in his interview with The New York Times. Too bad he let pass the opportunity to herald lessons learned from Houston's misstep to help other school systems nationwide.
Mr. Paige oversaw Houston schools from 1994 to December 2000, a period of soaring test scores and plummeting dropout rates. By the Texas school system's formula, Houston schools' dropout rate fell from 6.7 percent in 1992-1993 to 1.5 percent in 2000-2001. A schools spokesman there says Mr. Paige often warned that the actual dropout rate was much higher, and the formula deceptive.
Recent audits and investigations of 2000-2001 data do not back up that year's claim of a low dropout rate, and cast doubt that the Houston Independent School District ever tamed its problem. By several estimates, the Houston Chronicle reports, 40 percent of the city's middle and high school students drop out each year.
Thousands of middle and high school students who quit school in 2000-2001 were not classified as dropouts, and should have been, according to a state audit. Some schools claimed no dropouts at all.
Shoddy bookkeeping - that's what current Houston school officials called the worm in their accountability apple. Meanwhile, critics allege some schools misunderstood or exploited the state assessment system's confusing classifications for students who quit, or steered low-performers away from major tests, or fixed records to make statistics look good.
Houston school officials have since taken steps to improve the tracking of dropouts and prevention programs. But whether it was carelessness, confusion or corruption, this was the real shame: Thousands of low-performing Houston students were left behind.
Houston is not alone among trailblazers of the accountability movement to have encountered troublesome practices that obscure actual performance. New York school officials last week acknowledged their struggle with schools that push "at risk" students to drop out so they won't drag down test scores.
In the age of the No Child Left Behind Act, this is a wake-up call. Clearly, more must be done to address the increasingly documented vulnerabilities of data-driven school assessment programs to better protect their integrity.
Mr. Paige has the authority and the platform to advise the nation's schools, as they adopt and develop high-stakes assessments, that their efforts will be discreditable if to get ahead they treat as expendable the students who need the most help to make it to graduation. He should demand that states and schools use transparent methods of calculating dropout data - for better or worse, he can say he's been there.
Undoubtedly, that's awkward, as reality now tempers the legend of the Texas education "miracle," which he and that state's former governor rode to Washington and expanded into a blueprint for the nation's schools. But therein lies the difference between being accountability's cheerleader and its leader.