Bozeman High School has been named once again to Newsweek magazine's list of America's Best High Schools.

Newsweek's 2010 list ranks more than 1,600 U.S. high schools and declares them to be the nation's top 6 percent. It's based on the high percentage of students at each school taking college-level Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests.

Bozeman, which was ranked No. 675, and Stevensville, No. 1,368, were the only two high schools in Montana to make this year's list, released Monday.

"Wow, I had no idea," Bozeman High Principal Rob Watson said Tuesday.

"It's a testament to the breadth and depth of AP courses we offer," said Watson, who just finished his first year leading the 1,800-student school. "Years and years of dedicated staff built this AP program. It's a testament to the dedicated service teachers put in."

Bozeman High has been ranked on Newsweek's top-schools list five times since 2003.

Advanced Placement classes challenge students with college-level readings and workloads. At the end of the school year, students take national AP exams that are graded independently. Students who earn a score of 3, 4 or the top score of 5 may qualify for college credit, depending on the rules at each college.

In 2009, Bozeman High students took a total of 875 AP exams, Watson said. That's a lot -- more than twice the number of graduating seniors. To make Newsweek's list, schools must have at least an equal number of AP tests and graduating seniors.

Of Bozeman students taking AP exams in 2009, 81 percent passed, earning a score of 3 or higher. Results of this year's exams won't be known for several weeks.

Newsweek reported in its "excellence and equity" rate that 54 percent of Bozeman High graduating seniors passed at least one AP test during high school. Only 18 percent of Bozeman students qualified for low-income lunch subsidies.

Jay Mathews, reporter and editor for Newsweek and the Washington Post, created the top high schools ranking to draw attention to the value of having high school students tackle rigorous, college-level material. He wrote that he believes that is "vitally important for the improvement of America's high schools."

He cited studies that found the best way to predict whether students will graduate from college isn't whether they got good grades in high school, but whether they took "intense" academic classes. Those students were more likely to graduate from college - even if they only scored a 2 on the AP exam.

To send a student off to college without the experience of an AP class and exam, Mathews wrote, "is dumb ... educational malpractice. But most American high schools still do it."

Bozeman High offers more AP classes than other high schools in the area, Watson said. The classes and tests are open to all students.

Bozeman High's AP classes include English, physics, chemistry, biology, Spanish, French, German, U.S. history, European history, micro-economics, government and politics, statistics, calculus, art and music theory.

Some educators have criticized Newsweek's list as too simplistic. One Washington, D.C., teacher wrote online that his former school had been labeled a "dropout factory," yet it made Newsweek's list because all juniors and seniors were required to take at least one AP exam.

The Palo Alto, Calif., school district refused to participate in Newsweek's 2007 survey, though two of its high schools were ranked high on the list in 2006, the Mercury News reported.

Palo Alto educators protested that the list was a simplistic way to measure school quality, it added to the pressure on students and it brought unwelcome attention from people all over the world who wanted to get their children into the district's schools.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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