A new web site, SchoolMatters.com, is offering a free, web-based data service that provides comparative information and analysis on public schools, districts, and state education systems.

The site–founded through a $45 million contribution from the Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation–was created by a group known as the National Education Data Partnership, which includes the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Service, Achieve Inc., and CELT Corp.

SchoolMatters builds on, and replaces, an earlier initiative in which the Broad Foundation and S&P also were involved, called SchoolResults.org (see “ED launches $50M new data-management tool“). According to S&P, that web site focused only on NCLB data and was funded with a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. NCLB-centric information available on SchoolResults is now among the data provided by SchoolMatters, and visitors to SchoolResults are now redirected to the SchoolMatters web site.

SchoolMatters provides users with the kind of in-depth financial, demographic, and performance data that corporations have had about their industries for many years.

At a press conference announcing the release of SchoolMatters, William Cox, managing director of Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, said his organization believes that SchoolMatters “has the potential to help guide the education debate in this country by providing a common and transparent platform for education data.”

SchoolMatters points out on its web site that, even though per-pupil spending has increased by 50 percent over the past two decades, nearly one-third of public high school students fail to graduate, and two-thirds of all students leave high school unprepared for a four-year college, according to the Manhattan Institute.

Dan Katzir, managing director of the Broad Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving urban public schools through better government, management, and labor relations, said an increasing number of American students are “dropping out [of] or graduating from high school unprepared for work, college, and constructive citizenship.”

He said the web site provides “easy access to a much deeper level of information than ever publicly available before” as a way of beginning to address this concern.

The information on the site is meant to educate the public about how schools and districts are performing and help them understand the relationships between performance and investment. SchoolMatters says the ease of access to this information can help educators and policy makers better craft strong educational policies. By providing this information to the general public, SchoolMatters hopes to help parents make more informed decisions that range from “policies they advocate to the schools their children attend.”

Tom Houlihan, executive director of CCSSO, said his organization is a committed supporter of SchoolMatters “as [a] tool for highlighting the importance of making data-driven decisions.”

Houlihan said SchoolMatters provides “unprecedented access to data … rather than anecdotal [evidence].” He said easy access to such information will help to drive change on the state and local levels and better prepare American students for their post-graduate careers.

“The comparative data and analysis provided by this service is truly the wave of the future,” Houlihan said. “We hope this site will serve as complement to data-driven decision-making processes already under way.”

Standard & Poor’s Cox stressed that the site is meant “not only to provide users with different ways to look at education data, but to encourage them to pursue the stories behind the numbers.”

Leads to these stories might be found more easily than ever with the SchoolMatters service. For instance, SchoolMatters encourages users to find schools or districts with similar demographics and finances but better academic scores. Users then are encouraged to follow up on this initial information and find out what materials and techniques those higher-performing institutions are using to drive achievement.

Those involved in SchoolMatters were careful to point out that the site, though already formidable in its scope, is a work in progress. Cox said that “over half the states have very complete data,” but test scores and other data have not been provided by all the states. “The timeframe for the other 40 percent? The site will be continuously updated. We keep track of every piece of data that can be analyzed,” he said.

Houlihan said the data provided by the site can “only be improved as more education stakeholders use the site and provide suggestions on how it can be better used in the future.”

Cox noted that certain kinds of data must be reported over time. Academic improvement for a state or district is not something that can be measured with just one “snapshot” of student performance. Data must be collected over a period of time to accurately track and measure improvement.

Cox also mentioned that SchoolMatters has invited schools to provide data on the use of technology to improve assessment scores. “So far, no schools have offered technology use,” he said. “Data tends to be a bit arbitrary–about [the number of] computers per child. [The information] still doesn’t get to the use of technology to impact schools.”

He added: “We have submitted a template to all states to provide data to discuss technology issues in a way that may provide better information.”