Montgomery County schools brought online a $4 million state-of-the-art computer system this week that officials said will vastly improve the gathering and analysis of data, and one day could allow parents to track their children's progress via home computers.

The new Student Information System, in the works for the last two years, will give teachers, principals and administrators immediate access to 45 million pieces of information about students as they progress through school.

The system also has student records going back five years, so trends can be more easily analyzed. The new system replaces an obsolete, 25-year-old student information database that was not Y2K compliant and that only supplied information that was weeks old, officials said.

"The old system was fine," said Brian Porter, spokesman for the 189-school, 131,000-student system, "but it was extremely difficult to retrieve anything.

"It was a database system that collected data but didn't provide it in a useful format for anyone who was looking to learn anything from that data," he said. "It was cumbersome and time intensive.

"This new system really does enable us to ask a query and receive a reasonable response that is useful," he said. "It should really reshape the way we do business."

Ronald H. Walsh, the district's chief information technology officer, said the system is designed to provide "real time" information.

"If a student enrolls for the first time in a Montgomery County public school everyone will see that data at the same time within seconds after it's entered by someone," he said. "If after classes start and daily attendance is taken . . . all that data is instantly available. The same thing with test scores."

Walsh said the system also can answer questions like:

"How many kids have not yet taken the college boards or how many kids, by school, were failing algebra but had a pretest score that led us to believe they should be passing algebra, or how is gender or race a factor" in student performance?

"All the data will be available immediately," he said. "You don't have to wait for a report to be generated and given to the principal and staff a month after if occurs," he said.

Eventually the system could be expanded to include student photographs and portfolios, individual test grades and classwide test scores so a parent at home, armed with the proper password, could monitor their child's standing.

"That type of enhancement doesn't exist yet," Walsh said, "but that's something we want to build." He said that capability could be developed within two years.

Walsh said the district, where school starts Sept. 1, wanted to make its old system Y2K compliant, and decided on a total revamp at the same time.

He said that the district bought software from a small Canadian firm and that Montgomery's is now the largest school district to use the system.

In the end, Walsh said 8,000 to 10,000 people, most of them the district's 8,000 teachers, could be using the system when they are all trained.

The system was activated Monday--the same day that the county's new school superintendent, Jerry Weast, reported for work.

Weast, who spokesman Porter said is extremely interested in "data-driven instruction and data-driven management," paid a call on Walsh and his staff to see how things were going.

"Holy mackerel," Weast said, as data manager Walter Baugh and project manager Karen Dwyer explained the system's capabilities. "You may be able to tell how many left-handed people" there are.

"It's probably in there somewhere," Dwyer joked.

"Who inputs the data?" Weast asked. "This stuff is only as good as who inputs it."

Dwyer said most of it was entered by the staff over the years, then was transferred from the old system to the new. "We've been looking at it with a fine-tooth comb. We do checks and balances."

"I have lots of questions," Weast said.

"I'm sure we will be hearing from you," Dwyer said.