Darien High School topped the list of state schools, as it earned the honor of being named the No. 1 high school in the state in this year's U.S. News & World Report list of Best High Schools.

Darien leapfrogged several other local schools as it rose from Connecticut's No. 7 high school last year. Nationally, the school rose from No. 324 to No. 217, just missing the cutoff for the top 1 percent of high schools across the country, according to Robert Morse, the director of data research at U.S. News & World Report.

"There are 21,000 high schools that we rank, so the top 1 percent would be the top 210 schools," Morse said Monday. "So basically Darien is more or less in the top 1 percent."

The full rankings, which will be released later today, include several southwestern Connecticut schools in the top tier: Weston High School was named the No. 3 high school in the state; Ridgefield High School was named No. 4; Wilton High School was named No. 6; Staples High School was named No. 7; Joel Barlow High School was named No. 9; and Fairfield Ludlowe High School was named No. 11.

All seven schools were within the top 500 schools across the nation, earning them the distinction of "gold medal" schools. Another 1,790 schools were awarded silver medals on the list.

While other local schools such as Greenwich and New Canaan high schools were not among the top 500 schools in the nation, they likely will be included on the silver medal list, which will be released today. Last year, New Canaan High School was ranked at No. 526 while Greenwich High School was ranked at No. 572.

The list, which is compiled by U.S. News & World Report in partnership with the American Institutes for Research, evaluates student performance on state tests, as well as how effectively schools educate their minority and economically disadvantaged students. College- and career-readiness is determined using student performance on advanced placement and international baccalaureate exams.

In Darien, Superintendent Stephen Falcone said a total of 299 students took an Advanced Placement test during the 2011-12 school year, the timespan measured in the ranking. Of the roughly 600 tests taken by Darien students that school year, 95 percent of the tests came back with a passing score -- a 3, 4 or 5 out of 5 -- and more than 50 percent were graded at a 5.

"Back in 2008, we had under 400 tests being taken and now we have 600," Falcone said Monday. "And you would think that by the virtue of more students taking the test that the scoring would not be as strong, but kids work hard, the teachers work hard, and that cooperative effort has yielded great results."

But AP tests are just part of a broader picture of what is happening at Darien High School, Falcone said. While being named to the top of the list is exciting news, the superintendent said a ranking number says little about the value of the education offered to students.

"It's a testament to the hard work that our teachers, students and administrators put in at the high school and really across the district to make sure that students have an appropriately challenging experience, and that it's a place where they can grow not only academically but personally," he said. "It's a nice recognition, but we want to take a look at ourselves and what we do well and where we need to grow every year, regardless of where we are in any type of ranking."

When it comes to true excellence, it's the whole child that matters, said Tammy Sload, co-president of the Darien High School Parent Association.

"There's a commitment to excellence across all kinds of pursuits, from academic to sports and music, and because of that it gives kids a lot of different ways to find out what they're good at and to excel," Sload said.

It's a similar story in some of the other schools named to the list.

"Right now, the national conversation is all about college- and career-readiness. So kids hear how important it is to be ready for being successful in college and to have a viable career. But teenagers live in the here and now -- so our message is that high school is an extremely important part of your life," said Tom McMorran, principal of Joel Barlow High School in Redding.

"Bruce Springsteen sings songs about the glory days, not about being 50. So often with the impetus about core standards and high-pressure assessments, that's all about when you're older and someday needing these skills. But we're saying what's important is right here and right now, being a part of this dynamic community," McMorran said.

By making a concerted effort to ensure students' needs are met by providing outlets to reach their potential socially and athletically, students are able to focus their minds on the academic, he said.

"We're always proud of these things, but it's important to note that this is just one metric" said Robert O'Donnell, principal of Wilton High School. "This is not something we necessarily put the greatest weight on. We look at many different metrics to get a broad understanding of how our students are doing, but I'm proud of the high school and of our school community."

The smaller school districts in Fairfield County are no strangers to national praise and recognition, while larger districts with more economic diversity and other hurdles that complicate student achievement are often left off. But while the majority of Connecticut schools named to the state's top 10 are small, more-affluent and predominately white schools, Morse said the whole list includes a good number of more diverse institutions.

In total, 30 percent of the gold-medal schools had poverty rates of 25 percent and higher among their student bodies, and 67 percent of schools had enrollments with 25 percent or more of their population identifying as non-white, according to Morse.

Morse cited William H. Hall High School in West Hartford as an example of a more diverse school on the Connecticut list. The high school, in which roughly one-third of students are non-white, was named the No. 8 school in Connecticut in this year's ranking. Other schools in Connecticut's top 10 include Conard High School in West Hartford at No. 2, Farmington High School in Farmington at No. 5 and the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy in East Hartford, which was No. 1 in the state last year, at No. 10.

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