The Prince William County school system is preparing to take its academic temperature via a "curriculum audit."

The audit, to be conducted by an outside organization, will show "if we're doing what we say we're doing," said School Board member William Hundley (Coles), who supports the idea.

Budgeted for $41,000 in the school system's fiscal 1991 budget, the audit is to be completed over two weeks early this fall. The county School Board was expected last night to contract with researchers from the Arlington-based American Association of School Administrators, which will conduct the audit and then report to the board and school administrators within three months.

Superintendent Edward L. Kelly has advocated the audit since last winter, saying an outside assessment is needed if the school system is to improve. School officials were chagrined last year after data for 1989 showed a dip in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

"Before we start making any major changes in the curriculum, we have to have some objective assessment of what we're doing," Kelly said. "We may decide to add courses, or beef up those we already have."

Kelly said he anticipates requests from several schools for new courses and curriculum changes under his program of school-based management, which will be extended to all 58 public schools in Prince William beginning September.

School-based management allows principals, with the advice of parents and staff, to manage their own budgets and change their academic programs as long as they conform to local and state regulations.

The curriculum audit will examine whether instructors are teaching what the school system's curriculum says should be taught and, if so, how well students are learning, according to Jerry Melton, who will direct the audit.

The process is time-consuming and can be intimidating, according to those who have participated in similar audits elsewhere.

"They can be a pretty negative experience," said Phillip Jenkins, curriculum director for the Springfield, Mo., public school system, which underwent an audit in February 1989. "When the IRS comes to audit you, you don't expect them to tell you how good you are."

Jenkins said the audit has resulted in significant changes in his school system, including the addition of advanced-placement classes in social studies, English and chemistry, as well as more testing of students.

The Prince William auditors will spend two weeks interviewing Kelly and other administrators, visiting schools and speaking with principals, teachers and School Board members.

Scores of documents and records, including policy manuals, textbooks and curriculum guides, will be scrutinized.

Not everyone on the seven-member School Board wholeheartedly favors the idea. Ilona H. Salmon (Occoquan) said she doubts the audit is "going to tell me the things I want to know" or do more than consolidate information the school system already has.

Salmon said she wants to know if "we're teaching the right things -- for instance, do we need to add another foreign language?"

Board member Kathryn Perrin (Brentsville) is concerned that the final report quote only those people who give their permission. Otherwise, she said, "particular speech patterns" might reveal identities.

According to researcher Donna Ridenour, Melton's assistant, Prince William, with 42,000 students, is one of the largest school systems ever to be audited by the organization.

"They're really brave," she said. "Being audited is like being overweight and trying on a bikini, and then standing in front of a full-length mirror and deciding to go on a diet."

According to Kelly, audit recommendations could go into effect in the fall of 1991.