PHOENIX - The top performing school district in the state got there by borrowing liberally from the ideas and concepts of its neighbor.
David Woodall, superintendent of the Benson Unified School District, said his schools share more than a common boundary with the Vail School District, which has been one of the top-rated districts in the state for years.
"They've opened their doors, all their practices, curriculum and curriculum guides they've shared with us," Woodall said at a Thursday press conference here to announce the latest letter grades for school districts around the state. "This kept us from reinventing the wheel, allowed us to work on refining practices for a smaller school district rather than creating those."
In taking the top honors, Benson managed to edge out Vail, which is in the No. 2 slot.
State School Superintendent John Huppenthal announced school ratings - A through F - and AIMS test scores Thursday, both of which showed improvement over the previous year. AIMS, short for Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, is a major component of the school scores, but not the only one.
On that front, Huppenthal said there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of high school sophomores who pass the math, reading and writing parts of the AIMS test.
Still, 38 percent of sophomores failed at least one part of the test. That is important because Arizona law requires a passing grade on all three sections to get a diploma. There is a science section, but passage isn't required for graduation.
Students will have several more opportunities to pass before their graduation date.
Across the state, slight gains were seen in math and reading but decreases were recorded in writing and science - a trend that held true among the nine major districts in the Tucson area.
The Amphitheater, Catalina Foothills, Marana, Sahuarita, Tanque Verde and Vail school districts all had higher percentages of students passing math, reading, writing and science than the state. Flowing Wells performed the same as or better than the state average in reading and science but fell below the average in math and writing.
The two largest Tucson school districts - Tucson Unified and Sunnyside respectively - both had a lower percentage of students passing math, reading, writing and science than the state average. Sunnyside, which serves 18,000 students, had the lowest passing percentages of the nine major Tucson districts.
Huppenthal also reported a steady increase in the number of students in lower grades passing math and reading tests. But there was no improvement in performance in the writing test.
One group under particular scrutiny is third-graders. This year, for the first time, they cannot advance on to fourth grade unless they can show they are reading at grade level.
Two years ago, the number who failed was 4,356. While it has declined this year to 3,059, that still represents about 3.6 percent of third-graders in the state.
Huppenthal said 21 percent of Arizona's more than 2,000 schools managed to increase their letter grades.
And he said the experience with the Benson schools proves that is possible, even in a district that lacks the affluence of some others.
He said part of the reason for that is the interdistrict cooperation with Vail, on Tucson's southeast side, which includes the decision by Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker to start a network called Beyond Textbooks to revamp how students are taught.
"Across that network they make lesson plans available, the curriculum is available and a variety of consulting services actually go out from Vail," Huppenthal said. He called the relationship between Benson and Vail "a combination of cooperation and competition."
Woodall said it took four years to get his district to the top of the chart.
"There was no overnight fix, no magic pill, no single program that led to these results."
Next year's ratings are going to be watched particularly closely because the whole system is undergoing a revolution of sorts. Most significantly, the AIMS tests are going away, to be replaced with new national norm-referenced tests.
That is part of the switch to the Common Core curriculum developed by officials and educators across the country. It lays out particular skills students are supposed to acquire at set points during their education.
The idea is to assess students through tests, administered online, that are aligned with the new curriculum. And Huppenthal said these "college- and career-ready standards" will be "a little bit higher" than those demanded by AIMS.
On StarNet: Search AIMS scores by district and year at azstarnet.com/databases
How Tucson-area districts fared
Passing rates for local school districts.
School Math Reading Writing Science
Amphitheater (2012) 65% 81% 64% 66%
Amphitheater (2013) 64% 82% 63% 63%
Catalina Foothills (2012) 82% 94% 85% 88%
Catalina Foothills (2013) 83% 94% 83% 87%
Flowing Wells (2012) 62% 77% 58% 62%
Flowing Wells (2013) 59% 78% 54% 59%
Marana (2012) 67% 85% 66% 70%
Marana (2013) 67% 85% 63% 63%
Sahuarita (2012) 61% 81% 67% 65%
Sahuarita (2013) 63% 84% 61% 63%
Sunnyside (2012) 46% 66% 40% 44%
Sunnyside (2013) 43% 66% 38% 37%
Tanque Verde (2012) 84% 92% 84% 89%
Tanque Verde (2013) 83% 94% 82% 87%
TUSD (2012) 48% 69% 47% 52%
TUSD (2013) 50% 71% 46% 47%
Vail (2012) 83% 92% 78% 84%
Vail (2013) 83% 92% 75% 83%