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Electronic Data Book To Expand Access To Vast Storehouse of School Information

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WASHINGTON--School administrators, researchers, and advocacy groups will soon have at their fingertips what is believed to be the most comprehensive set of data on students and schools yet produced.

The "School District Data Book,'' a federally funded project slated to be released this summer, is expected to include vast stores of information from the 1990 Census, the Census Bureau's school-finance data, and the Education Department's Common Core of Data.

But unlike previous versions of such data bases, which were more limited and available only on hard-to-use data tapes, all of the information in the new system will be packaged on CD-ROM's, a disk-based information-storage technology that will enable anyone with access to a personal computer and disk player to use it.

"The goal is that anybody can sit down in front of a computer, flip a switch, and be guided through the process of getting the data he or she needs,'' said George Grier, a statistician with the MESA Group, an Alexandria, Va.-based firm that is producing the electronic book for the Education Department.

Mr. Grier noted that, among a host of other information, the package will enable users to find, within seconds, how districts' staffing patterns, enrollments, and finances compare with those of other districts in the state and the nation.

It will also enable administrators to make projections about their schools' populations based on the characteristics of children and private school populations in the area, and, in an unusual feature, will allow users to create maps showing their districts according to a range of factors.

Users can also add to the system other information, such as district data on facilities and student achievement, Mr. Grier said.

"Anything you can ask about a kid, a parent, a household'' could be on the data base, he said.

Made Possible by Technology

The $5.2 million project to develop the data book is part of an effort by the National Center for Education Statistics to make information about schools and students more widely available, according to Roger A. Herriot, an associate commissioner of the center.

The N.C.E.S., an arm of the Education Department, is required by law to report to Congress every 10 years on the social and economic characteristics of children and school districts, Mr. Herriot noted.

"That's a big, involved process to come up with one report,'' he said. "If we do all that, we ought to go beyond the wording in the law and report not just to Congress, but make the whole set of data useful to a lot of people.''

The system was made possible by rapid advances in technology, which have enabled the data bases to be placed on CD-ROM.

Each compact disk contains the equivalent of 300,000 pages of text. The entire package will be contained on nine to 20 disks, which will cost about $35 each and can be used on ordinary hardware that costs about $2,500, company officials say.

"We're not talking prices that will scare any school district,'' said Carl Friedman, a professor of computer science at the University of the District of Columbia and a member of the MESA Group.

'Gold Mine' for Researchers

Mr. Friedman also said the package is designed to be easy to use. Although the firm will provide training for users and a manual to which they can refer, most users will be able to operate the system by simply following directions on the screen, he said.

Mr. Herriot said the N.C.E.S. is planning to market the data book to Congress, libraries, regional education laboratories, state education agencies, school districts, and education researchers. He said rural-education researchers have expressed particular interest in the project, because information about small districts is often hard to come by.

"This is a gold mine for them,'' Mr. Herriot said.

Warren Glimpse, the president of the MESA Group, added that the company is considering developing an on-line system, which would enable users to tap into the data base directly without using the compact disks.

"The capability, we definitely have,'' Mr. Friedman said. "It comes down to the demand from the field.''

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