ECI Equipment International Inc., an unusual, high-growth educational equipment export firm, will be honored today for "excellence in export" by the Reagan administration in ceremonies in which the Sterling, Va.-based firm also is expected to announce a proposed merger that would make the 12-year-old firm a publicly owned company.

In ceremonies that also will mark the unveiling of the firm's new 24-acre development for international trading firms five minutes away from Washington Dulles International Airport, Commerce Deputy Secretary Clarence T. Brown will present the Presidential "E" Award to ECI President and Chairman Robert L. McKee. The firm also has been named Virginia Export Company of the Year.

McKee, an educator who founded Northern Virginia Community College in the 1960s, has nurtured ECI from its beginnings as an education consulting firm in 1972 to a $14-million-a-year supplier of equipment for international education development projects. ECI has supplied equipment (everything from "bulldozers to wine glasses") from U.S. manufacturers and distributors to development projects in five continents, many of which have received financing by the World Bank and other international development agencies.

The award, one of 55 this year, is being presented to ECI for its "outstanding and aggressive, creative marketing resulting in a substantial increase in the volume of exports on a sustained basis."

Over the last four years, a Commerce Department official said, more than 90 percent of ECI's annual sales have been in capital equipment exports.

At the close of the ceremonies, ECI is expected to announce "an interim management agreement" to acquire a Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturer, Citel Inc., that currently is in bankruptcy. Under the proposed agreement, expected to be completed by the end of the year, ECI would become a public, stockholder-owned firm, McKee said. He would not disclose further details of the agreement.

"This company is a little different," said a Commerce Department official who reviews the approximately 80 applications for the award every year. ECI has proven its "effort and commitment" to exporting, the official said, by overcoming problems unique to doing business in international markets. For example, the official said, in a recently awarded $31 million contract to supply equipment to Indonesian schools, ECI was able to meet unexpected requirements by the country that it base some of its operations in the country and that it find export financing arrangements other than those offered by the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp.

Luther H. Hodges Jr., whose National Bank of Washington extended ECI a special $10 million line of credit as a result of the Indonesian contract, said the company has found "innovative and aggressive financing" for its projects. ECI "promises to be a very successful export trading company," said Hodges, whose father, a former secretary of Commerce, started the export award program in 1961, and who himself was responsible for the program as a deputy secretary.

Best-Met Publishing Co., the Columbia-based publisher of two food-industry trade magazines, will add a new publication to its plate in November.

Mid-Atlantic Food Service News, a monthly tabloid, will target the $5 billion food service industry, including restaurants and institutional food service operations and their suppliers, in Maryland, Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The new tabloid was developed by the owners of the 7-year-old firm, Richard Bestany and Jeff Metzger.

Metzger said that the idea for the new publication grew out of the company's "street research" -- informal reports from its subscribers in the food service industry that there was a need for such a highly focused source of information about the regional market.

Metzger added that while there may be some overlap between the food service tab and the other two publications -- Food World, which covers the retail grocery industry in the mid-Atlantic, and Food Trade News, which focuses on the retail grocery business in the Philadelphia area -- he stressed that the industries are sufficiently distinct to make it a success. He said the Washington area, with the presence of Marriott Corp. and some "top-notch distributors," is a "tremendous market" for food service.

Metzger said he expects circulation of the tab to grow from 21,000 for its first issue on Nov. 25 to 25,000 in the first year. A one-year subscription will cost $24.