Skip Navigation

Chapter 6—Speaking the Same Language: Data “Standards”


Data standards are documented agreements on representations, formats, and definitions of common data; and are intended to improve the quality and share-ability of education data.

A look around the country reveals that many states and districts are building separate and dissimilar LDSs. While many see this as problematic, potentially complicating the exchange and comparison of data in the systems, trouble actually only arises when the different systems use incompatible standards. Trouble-free data sharing within an agency and with external systems will largely depend on the standardization of data elements and technical specifications across systems, as will the quality, comparability, and usefulness of the data. Adherence to common data standards is the key to bridging these systems, achieving interoperability, and enabling analysis across institutions.

Data standards are documented agreements on representations, formats, and definitions of common data elements; and are intended to improve the quality and share-ability of education data. Under the umbrella of data standards, three major types of standards serve disparate audiences and purposes:

  • Data definitions and code sets

    Definitions and code sets are concerned with the meaning and content (e.g., values) of data elements. In a sense, these standards provide a common vocabulary or language for anyone who manages or uses education data. Sometimes called “suggested standards,” they are typically included in data dictionaries, glossaries, and various other resources. These standards may be useful to a broad array of users, including teachers, district and state data staff, researchers, institutions of higher education, and private sector organizations.

  • Technical specifications

    Technical specifications are used by software and systems developers to facilitate interoperability between applications or to guide data reporting. They typically provide technical criteria or requirements, methods, and processes for data reporting and management such as field length or data type. Technical standards are useful to software application vendors and system developers, as well as education agency staff who submit data to a collecting agency.


    LDS Lore: What’s a school anyway?

    Unexpected difficulties may arise during the development of standards. For instance, one state agency spent months defining “school,” a task that no one had anticipated would be particularly difficult. Staff wrestled with the nuances. Should special education schools be included? How about private schools? Could two schools reside in a single building or one school span across multiple buildings? The choices were anything but obvious. Variations in definitions like these can have serious implications, including on funding allocations.

  • General guidelines/relationships

    General standards describe the relationships between data elements. Data models are the typical source of such information. These models are commonly developed for software and systems developers to help build data system architecture, as well as for researchers who need to explore the types of data available to them for study.

Use Common Definitions and Codes

Adherence to common data definitions and codes facilitates comparability, interoperability, and portability within and among K–12 institutions; as well as with early education, postsecondary, and workforce organizations. Without a standard set of common data elements, there would be no way to make sense of the data collected and shared across schools and districts, or to truly follow students over time as they change schools and districts. In addition, unless states adopt the same data definitions and coding systems, drawing valid comparisons among states will be difficult if not impossible, and will, at a minimum, require the time-consuming process of crosswalking the data elements from one state system to another state system.


District difference

Many districts have their own systems for coding data elements such as “course.” Local education agencies may either adopt the state’s system or School Codes for Exchange of Data (SCED), or map existing local codes to the state or SCED ones, an approach that may be less labor-intensive than changing standards.

For instance, if one state counts as “graduates” students who dropped out of high school, but later earned a GED or enrolled in a postsecondary institution, that state’s cohort graduation rate may be higher relative to a state that considers such students “dropouts.” Common codes for recording education data (academic courses, exits, attendance, etc.) or, alternatively, the crosswalking of local codes to a common system offers many benefits. The establishment of common data codes like those for race and ethnicity or for courses makes it easier to transfer information and draw comparisons across entities. In the case of course codes, for instance, a universal system can reduce time spent interpreting course information from transfer schools and help place students in the appropriate courses when they switch schools in the state or even across the country. For example, common course codes based on academic standards taught in each course will ensure that a student who completed algebra I in one district will be placed in the appropriate follow-up course in any school across the state. Use of common course codes also allows more reliable comparisons of performance data over time and across institutions. For example, an analysis considering the effects of taking algebra I will yield reliable results only if the courses measured are comparable in content—in other words, if they were classified by a common course-coding system based on academic standards taught in each course.

Maintain Metadata

Metadata, or “data about data,” are critical to guiding proper data management and informed use. Without an organized approach to recording information about the agency’s data elements, and without governing standards, the staff must remember or otherwise track all the information necessary to understand the data. This might include definitions; technical specifications such as field length and format, data source, due date(s), purpose, business rules, related calculations or transformations, and related policies; and all other information relevant to the creation, management, interpretation, and use of those data. In today’s environment, where data elements are numerous, complex, and ever-changing, managing a data system without a robust metadata system would not be practical or advisable. In fact, many education agency staff consider a central, authoritative metadata repository a critical component of effective management and use of an agency’s data.

The Forum has more detailed information…

...about metadata and metadata systems:

Forum Guide to Metadata: The Meaning Behind Education Data (2009)

Data models

A data model documents the agency’s data architecture, helping users make sense of the many items that may be tracked by the system. By presenting an inventory of all individuals, places, and other entities involved in education, and by describing the relationships among them, an education data model can help education institutions, vendors, and researchers better understand the education data environment. Thus, a data model can help vendors and agency staff in data system design, or assist agency leaders select a product on the market that will meet their stakeholders’ needs. A data model may also be a resource in the search for data to build into research designs.

While developing their data models, states and districts should focus on program area needs. IT should implement the model, but the business side of the organization should drive its design. Data models are offered by several vendors and by the federal government, which recently developed and continues to enhance a national data model called the National Education Data Model (NEDM).


Standards instability

Standards are constantly altered as data meanings are refined, institutions seek to align with other agencies to facilitate data sharing, new information is desired, new collection requirements are imposed, populations evolve, and problems with existing standards are identified. While this evolution is necessary and good, data quality and efficient use of resources demand that states document and make public all changes to their data standards so that suppliers have enough lead time to comply (see the "Change management" box in chapter 3).

National Standards Resources

State and local education agencies use a variety of data “standards,” be they locally developed or adopted from state or national sources. Whatever the source, these standards are commonly set to meet federal and state data reporting requirements. However, shared data standards across the education community offer many other benefits. For instance, they enable interoperability, eliminating redundant data entry, lessening reporting burdens, reducing data errors, and facilitating data transfers. Using shared data standards also enables portability of student data and transcripts (see chapter 10 of Book Two: Planning and Developing an LDS); and common adherence to shared data standards allows valid data comparisons across district and state lines.

Education agencies may refer to several major sources for national data standards when designing, buying, adjusting, or using a data system. Figure 4 presents the three types of standards described above. Examples of what each type of standard looks like in reality are presented in the second column.

Common Education Data Standards Initiative

The Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) Initiative is a national, collaborative effort to identify a set of data elements of particular importance in K–12 education and the transition to postsecondary education. The CEDS Initiative has identified key data elements describing demographics, program participation, course information, and other attributes of students and the education system, as well as elements needed for high school-to-postsecondary transcripts and high school feedback reports. For each of these elements, the CEDS Initiative has defined detailed data standards including definitions, code sets, and a range of technical specifications. Most of these data standards have been drawn or adapted from established sources such as the NCES Handbooks, Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) Association specifications, and Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC) schema; and will be incorporated into the National Education Data Model (NEDM). Ideally, this core set of data elements will be voluntarily adopted by education agencies and marketplace providers. These sources are described on the following pages. Visit CEDS Initiative for more information.

EDFacts initiative

EDFacts is a data initiative of the U.S. Department of Education compiling national, K–12 education data by consolidating previously separate federal collections. By combining these collections, EDFacts aims to centralize performance and other aggregate data for decision- and policymaking in order to streamline submissions to the federal government and eliminate redundancies, thus easing the burden on state agencies. Data collected for EDFacts include student and staff demographics, program participation, student performance and completion, school and district directory data, revenues and expenditures, school choice options, and other information. As a standards resource, EDFacts provides data elements, definitions, and code sets. The Department of Education also publishes technical specifications for EDFacts to guide the file submission process. Since much of the data collected by states are used to meet federal reporting requirements, the standards provided by EDFacts are commonly adopted by the states to facilitate compliance. In fact, all of its data elements have been incorporated into the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Handbooks, the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) specifications, and the National Education Data Model (see below). States submit their EDFacts data to the U.S. Department of Education through The Education Data Exchange Network (EDEN).

NCES Handbooks

The NCES Handbooks include a vast collection of basic data elements and option sets. The resource’s stated purpose is “to provide a comprehensive listing of all data elements that might be needed for decisionmaking related to managing an education system, reporting to state and federal education agencies, and computing indicators of school effectiveness.” Data elements are updated annually and organized into seven “domains” or levels: class, intermediate educational unit (IEU), local education agency (LEA), school, staff, state education agency (SEA), and student. For each data element, a definition is provided along with an option set if applicable. As a standards resource, the Handbooks offer a catalog of data elements, definitions, and code sets that is consistent with all the data elements needed to submit to the EDFacts data collection. They also include the School Codes for the Exchange of Data (SCED) and several standards provided by Forum publications (see below). Additionally, most of the Handbooks’ terms, definitions, and code sets have been incorporated into the SIF specifications and the NEDM (see below).

Education agency administrators may also use the Handbooks’ Data Dictionary Customization site to build their own data dictionaries.

The Handbooks include the Secondary School Course Classification System: School Codes for Exchange of Data (SCED), which presents a course taxonomy and course descriptions for secondary education.* These codes are specifically intended to help education agencies track students longitudinally as they advance through grade levels, transfer to different schools, or enroll in a postsecondary institution. (See appendix C for additional information on the SCED.)

National Education Data Model

The National Education Data Model (NEDM) provides general data guidelines, depicting the relationships between a large collection of data elements collected and used in P–12 education. Specifically, NEDM focuses on the granular data items, attributes, and relationships associated with teaching, learning, and business operations at the school and district levels. For instance, the data model will tell you that a student with a specific name, physical address, phone number, displacement status, and other attributes, receives services from a teacher and participates in a class that has a room number within a building, which is a capital asset defined in the NCES Handbooks, and so on. Version 2 of the data model can be accessed here. The model currently includes all of the elements contained in the NCES Handbooks, and overlaps considerably with the data elements in the SIF specifications (see below). Several Forum standards are also included (see box below). In the future, NEDM is also expected to include elements from postsecondary education that are included in the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council standards (see below).

National Forum on Education Statistics

The National Forum on Education Statistics (the Forum) has long been a leading resource for education data standards, focusing on issues of data standardization and basic data elements. A group of state and local education agencies, the federal government, and other organizations, the Forum has produced several guides that provide voluntary, best practice recommendations about data standards, including definitions, codes, and education data system components. To date, these products have covered areas such as crime, violence and discipline, attendance, exits, finance, facilities, and student displacement. Many of the Forum’s standards have been incorporated into the NCES Handbooks, the NEDM, and the SIF specifications. For more information on the Forum’s publications, see appendix F.

Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council

The Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC) is an organization of colleges and universities; professional and commercial organizations; data, software, and service providers; nonprofit organizations and associations; and state and federal government agencies. Among the organization’s missions is to create data standards to facilitate the exchange of data among postsecondary institutions. As a standards resource, PESC provides a range of standards for higher education, listing data elements, definitions, and code sets; and specifying technical requirements. The PESC standards for student transcripts have been crosswalked to the SIF specifications for student records to ensure comparability and completeness. However, because the standards are implemented differently, some variations exist and the two organizations continue to work together to ensure interoperability. PESC data elements related to student transitions to postsecondary education, such as e-transcript information, will also be included in the NEDM in the future. To enable data sharing with postsecondary institutions, K–12 education agencies may use PESC standards about students bound for, or enrolled in, higher education.

Schools Interoperability Framework Implementation Specifications

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) Association is a nonprofit organization whose members include local and state K–12 agencies, software vendors, and others in the education community. The organization has created and continues to enhance a vendor-neutral “technical blueprint” for exchanging K–12 data. As a standards resource, SIF offers a full range of standards and defines suggested standards for naming, defining, and formatting data elements; as well as the technical specifications to allow software applications from different developers to easily interact and exchange data. SIF also includes a data model that depicts the relationships among the data; and data elements in areas such as student information, assessment, facilities, finances, food services, transportation, and professional development. The SIF specifications incorporate the NCES Handbooks elements and code sets whenever possible. All of the EDFacts elements are also included, and the SCED codes are referenced, as well as other standards provided in Forum products. SIF also overlaps with PESC standards related to transitions to postsecondary education, such as student transcript information.


* A similar collection of course codes for the elementary and middle school levels is currently being developed by the Forum. For more information, see the Forum’s Prior-to-Secondary School Course Classification Working Group at /forum/emscourseclass.asp. For a basic list of elementary-level course codes in the NCES Handbooks Online, see the related options list for the NCES Handbooks data element “Elementary Course/Subject” at