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Some of the state's "best" schools, judged just by test scores, are part of the same school district as some of the "worst."

That will seem implausible, if not impossible, to all those who have been led to believe that school districts - if they're good enough - need only impose their teaching genius on students to get them to perform at the highest levels.

But the Paradise Valley Unified School District, not unlike other large school districts in the state, straddles the great Education Divide separating the haves from the have nots. On one side are well-off students who score higher on student achievement tests. On the other side are the less-well-off who score lower.

As such the district provides insight not only into the state's biggest education problem but also into the ongoing philosophical and political divisions that it causes. Those divisions are on full display once again as the state Senate debates the governor's proposal to tie additional education funding to school performance.

Paradise Valley, which is near but distinct from the upper-crust town of the same name, is split by the education divide somewhat to the south and west of Loop 101 as it bends through the northern-most edges of Phoenix and Scottsdale.

The difference from one side to the other is stark. To the north and east are the well-to-do neighborhoods of north Scottsdale. For instance, third-graders at Grayhawk Elementary score among the very best in the state in math and reading. By contrast, to the south and west of the divide are the hurting neighborhoods of north Phoenix. Third-graders at Aire Libre Elementary score among the very worst.

The glaring differences in performance demonstrate rather graphically that education is divided not by school districts, nor by schools or teachers, but by the socioeconomic conditions in which they operate.

Educators gauge these conditions by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Thinking Arizona plotted this measure against the performance of 1,462 schools - all those in the state for which all the necessary data is available. The graphs show unmistakably that the higher the percentage of students on free lunches, the lower the performance on achievement tests.

Better-off schools end up getting most of the good grades awarded by the state. Paradise Valley, for instance, has 29 such schools. They pulled in 14 of the 15 A's given to the district, and 12 of the 16 B's.

Meanwhile, worse-off schools get most of the black marks. Paradise Valley has 14 such schools. They received seven of the district's 10 C's and both of the D's.

Any suggestion that the disparity is the fault of the schools is vigorously disputed by Paradise Valley Superintendent James P. Lee. He declares, "Some of our best teachers are in our 'D' schools. They're laying it on the line for these kids."

For this, he believes, they deserve to be sainted rather than castigated. "And yet," Lee laments, "all they hear is what a bad job they're doing."

That's because the governor and elements of the Legislature persist in the misconception that performance in school is solely about the performance of schools. They can't get through their heads, or at least they don't want to acknowledge, that the grades the state hands out are as much or more about neighborhood circumstances as they are about educational quality.

Senate Bill 1444, which would tie a rare increase in education funding to school performance, is just the latest in the ongoing campaign to promote schools that are "good" and wash the state's hands of those that are "bad."

The pretense is performance. But what the steady stream of "reforms" really does is undercut the state's responsibilities to those who are harder to educate, including our minority populations. And because so many young Arizonans fall into this category, these misguided actions relegate the state to a lesser place.

Looked at on a statewide basis, Arizona sits south of a national education divide that stretches across the country from South Carolina to California.

To lift itself out of the education mire, Arizona has to commit itself to helping the worse-off as well as the better-off. Rather than stubbornly denying that these differences exist, officials should make use of them. We should start by stopping the one-dimensional practice of evaluating, and rewarding, schools based on achievement scores alone. Instead we should evaluate their achievement in the context of their socioeconomic circumstances.

This simple change will put all schools in the game. There can be no hiding, and no excuses, for schools at any level when their performance is evaluated against those in similar circumstances.

Better-off schools should be expected to do better than the rest. Woe to those that, while they might do better than the pack as a whole, actually trail their peer group. They need to do more than get by on their good fortune.

Worse-off schools will have their own incentives to improve. The ones that lag behind those of similar circumstances truly are problems. But those that rise above their surroundings should get the credit they richly deserve.

Making this revision will result in more competition, more self-induced changes, more improvement for all schools no matter their circumstances. That's one step toward raising ourselves out of the education hole.

Richard H. Gilman, who was a Star editor early in a long newspaper career, is the chief contributor to the website. Contact him at