ROANOKE -- On paper, Virginia's official dropout rate for public school students looks respectable at just 4.4 percent.

But education officials say that figure does not tell the whole story because the state has no accurate method for logging the number of dropouts each year.

The official state figure is deceptively low because superintendents have to report only students who quit during the academic year and not those who quit during summer vacation, officials say.

"A lot of kids who drop out over the summer get lost," an education department official was quoted in yesterday's Roanoke Times & World News. "There is no system for tracking them."

The official dropout rate last year was 4.4 percent, but the department noted that 25.1 percent of all seniors failed to graduate with their classmates.

That could mean they failed a grade, but it often means they did not go back to school after summer vacation.

No one knows for sure, and as the unidentified official told the paper, "You can't really fathom the full scope of the problem until you truly know its full extent."

Finding the scope of the problem is drawing new interest because of reports showing that dropouts cost the state millions because so many show up in prisons, unemployment lines or welfare rolls.

Some parts of the problem have been studied. For instance:

The typical male dropout will cost himself $260,000 in lifetime earnings by not finishing school; the typical female dropout will lose $200,000.

The average $5,777 annual salary loss per man, and $4,444 per woman, means a big loss in local tax revenue.

The state Department of Education has no full-time antidropout program. Forty-two percent of all school systems have no program for preventing dropouts, 68 percent have no programs for those who drop out, and 95 percent do not spend remedial education funds on potential dropouts, the department reports.

State officials told the newspaper that plans are being made to close the reporting gap and to start charting dropouts from grade seven instead of eight, but they added that details remain to be worked out.