If a bold new guidebook is correct, schools are tops in suburban New York, flunking in much of California, and Education Secretary Bennett was close to the truth when he said Chicago is in a state of "educational meltdown."

"Public Schools USA," (Williamson Publishing, $17.95) a 366-page book by longtime education writer Charles H. Harrison, offers a first ever comparative guide to some 500 metropolitan school districts around the country, rating each on a "school effectiveness" scale of 0-100.It's meant as a starting point for families moving to the nation's largest metropolitan areas who want to know: "Where are the good schools?"

But as the introduction stresses:"We have not tried to pick the socalled `best districts' in an area."

That point is worth remembering in light of the book's glaring omissions.

New York City; Boston; Detroit; Kansas City; Boise; Charleston, S.C.; Newark, N.J.; New Orleans;and San Francisco weren't evaluated because those districts did not respond to Harrison's mailed statistical questionnaires, sent twice to each district.

And the guide covered only districts with at least 2,500 students located within 25 miles of 52 core cities meaning thousands of districts were automatically excluded because of their size or ruralness.

Harrison, who took a year and spent approximately $10,000 of his own money researching the book, profiled each district using 22 statistics including average SAT scores, spending per pupil, dropout rates, teacher salaries, and numbers of students expelled or suspended.

The book then appraised each district's "quality of school leadership," "quality of instruction," and "quality of school environment," drawing on the expertise of about 1,000 local education reporters, parent groups and others.

Third, and most controversial, the book scored each district on a scale of 0-100 using an "effective schools index" devised by Harrison. The median score nationwide was 58.

School districts earned from zero to 10 points on each of 10 statistical criteria: average daily attendance, current spending per pupil, dropout rate, average combined SAT or ACT scores, percentage of eligible students taking the SAT or ACT, number of Advanced Placement courses, teacher-student ratios in elementary and secondary grades, counselor-student ratio, and number of students per music specialist.

Districts that didn't provide a statistic or misinterpreted a question received a zero.

The ratings produced few surprises: Big cities generally scored lowest and wealthy suburbs highest.And a disproportionate number of California districts scored low a legacy, said Harrison in an interview, of property tax-cutting Proposition 13 passed by that state's voters in 1978.

The highest score of any district was Brighton, N.Y., an affluent suburb near Rochester, with a near-perfect 98. The profile said opportunities for gifted students were particularly excellent.