A popular pastime this Christmas, although no competition yet for Scattergories and Pictionary, is the Compare-Your-School-Test-Score game.

With the holiday release of the first statewide test scores of fifth, eighth and 11th graders, Utahns, for the first time, are seeing if their school makes a perceived "A" or "F" compared to a neighboring school or those in a neighboring district.Educators have warned that such comparisons have inherent problems, cautioning parents not to put too much stock in the first scores. They argue that reasons outside school, such as mobility, socioeconomic conditions and family stability, greatly influence a child's progress in school.

They are right. These variables do affect test scores. But they shouldn't be allowed to totally discount the scores. If "reasons" or outright "excuses" are allowed to invalidate individual school test results, Utah will have spent a lot of money for nothing.

Although, as educators have rightly stressed and re-stressed, the SAT results are only one measure of school performance, they ARE one measure. The scores are valuable, pointing out weaknesses and problems that cry out for correction. They also show schools with strengths that could be useful in offsetting weaknesses in other schools.

The most obvious sore spot - and one that could have been anticipated - is the low scores earned by at-risk children in the poor areas of each district. The scores show definite patterns of high scores in the more affluent areas and low scores in the poor neighborhoods.

Of more interest to the educational analysts, it would seem, would be the schools that came up with UN-predictable scores. The central city Salt Lake District school that scored well above expected norms, for instance. Something is happening in that school to offset the negative predictors. Wise educators would use it as a pattern for similar schools.

Ditto for schools that fell below anticipated ranges. With a national norm of 50, numerous schools scored under 20, with one school actually scoring 8 and another 9.

If one school can take the same predictors - high numbers of students on welfare programs of one sort or another - and succeed, why should others fail?

Obviously, the answers are complex. Schools can't always pick up the rubble of unhealthy homes and do the job.

Children from poor families have just as much capacity to learn as those from rich families. The more affluent children, however, have more advantages that give them a leg up in school.

They have more educational experiences from books and toys at home, opportunity for trips and parents who are more educated and therefore push education more.

At school, non-working parents, particularly mothers, are more likely to be volunteers in the classroom. Also, parents in more affluent neighborhoods can afford to donate financially to school programs. A number of schools in the more affluent areas of the Salt Lake District, for example, rely heavily on parental donations to finance their computer labs.

Teachers also want to teach in the schools with the most resources, and although there are exceptions, the best or more experienced teachers sometimes cluster at schools in more affluent areas.

The Legislature, by mandating the tests in the name of accountability, has done Utah education a great service. We now know the problems. Accountability implies that deficiencies will be corrected.

With the public looking over their shoulders, educational leaders may have to address problems that have been allowed to slide in the past. Districts have been aware of their low-performing schools in the past. Now they have no excuse to ignore them. If reallocation of resources and more programs for at-risk schools are indicated, the Legislature also has a responsibility, since it holds the key to some of the solutions.

The State Office of Education, too, needs to take a look at the universally poor showing in language arts/English across the state. The state's core curriculum apparently is not in line with nationally accepted performance standards in the language arts/English area. Maybe we don't want it to be. Maybe we're doing something better. The national tests shouldn't be allowed to dictate Utah's curriculum objectives, but they could at least provide a yardstick against which to measure what we are doing.

With results in hand, the districts, educators at the State Office of Education and legislators now need to devise ways - possibly more tutors and aides in at-risk schools or financial incentives for teachers who stay in the at-risk schools or smaller classes - that ensure all Utah children receive a comparable education.

The state will reap the advantage, over time, if every child receives an adequate education.