Step 7 : Identify the format for the data within the student record system
The format of a student record is directly related to the characteristics of the storage medium. Paper records are often formatted to hold standard English words or numbers. Abbreviations may be used to save space, but generally the format is laid out to be easily read by a user. Even if paper documents are going to be used to store student data, there is an advantage to using data elements with standard definitions and coding conventions. These standards will help to ensure that the information collected is consistent with reporting requirements and other data collections.
Computerized records, on the other hand, capitalize on the use of codes rather than words, and even skip characters such as commas and decimal points to conserve space. A computerized record may look nonsensical to a reader without a code table and format description.
A computerized "data system format" is typically organized around these components:
- Files: Groups of records of similar format (e.g., a collection of records for multiple students).
- Records: The set of related data elements maintained about individual students.
- Data Elements: Single pieces of information (e.g., Birthdate).
- Fields: Specific areas (such as columns on a spreadsheet or punch card) in which the same type of information is regularly recorded. Fields are defined by exact positions of data elements in a record, such as positions 6-13 of an 80-character record reserved for a field containing the data element "birthdate," which might be coded as 10141989 (October 14, 1989).
- Options/Codes: Symbols or abbreviations that can be translated into a meaningful value for the data element (e.g., the number 5 might stand for fifth grade).
As mentioned earlier, the Student Data Handbook for Elementary, Secondary, and Early Childhood Education contains recommended data element types and field lengths to be used by those designing computerized student record systems. The SPEEDE/ExPRESS format also contains data element characteristics.
A critical data element in an automated student record system is the student identifier, described in Step 5. This unique identifier allows components of a student's record to be merged or linked as needed even when data are maintained in different files and media.
You will want to include this type of information in your data dictionary as a means of helping to ensure data integrity.