Skip Navigation
Building An Automated Record System : Back to Home National Forum on Education Statistics
Introduction Purpose of this Booklet Contents of this Booklet Description of a Student Record Description of a Student Record System Benefits of a Well-Designed Automated Student Record System Steps for Designing and Implementing an Automated Student Record System Summary Resource List
Step 1Step 2Step 3Step 4Step 5Step 6Step 7Step 8Step 9Step 10Step 11Step 12

The document, Basic Data Elements for Elementary and Secondary Education Information Systems, describes the criteria for identifying needed data elements.

Step 4 : Select the data elements to be kept in the student record system.

Each data category should be further divided into individual data elements. A data element is the lowest level of information contained in a record. For example, in the data category "student background," race/ethnicity, sex, birthdate, and English language proficiency would all appear as data elements.

Data elements should be selected for one of the following reasons:

  1. The data are needed for administrative purposes to ensure an effective education system.
  2. The data are needed for reporting to school boards, state boards of education, and state and federal education agencies, as well as to parents and teachers.
  3. The data are needed to evaluate the quality of the instruction and services being provided.

When you are selecting the data elements for a student record system you must remember that data should not be collected if they are not needed or if their accuracy is suspect. Also, you should look to see if the data you want are available from other reliable sources. In particular, sensitive student data should not be collected unless an important purpose is being served.

The document, Basic Data Elements for Elementary and Secondary Education Information Systems, describes procedures that can be used to select data elements for an education information system, as well as a listing of desirable student and staff data elements. In this document, the following criteria were specified for selecting data elements.

Criteria for evaluating the quality of data elements:
  1. The data element should be collected on a regular and timely basis. The data element should be one that is gathered and used on a regular basis. There is no efficiency in standardizing an element that reflects a one-time need or an unusual bit of information. In addition, the collection of this data element should occur at a time that is appropriate for the intended users.
  2. The data element should be reliable. The data should be a consistent measure for every entity (such as individuals, schools, or districts) and from one time to another.
  3. The data element should be valid. The data should measure what they purport to measure. A data element should reflect a logical and meaningful description of an entity, for example, an individual, a school, or school district, and it should not be easily subject to distortion.
  4. The data element should be quantifiable or measurable. The data to be collected can be defined, listed, codified, or otherwise described in a consistent, readily interpretable manner.
  5. The data element has been consistently defined by a recognized body. The data element should have a standardized definition so that data can be collected in a reliable manner. This definition should be one that is available from a legitimate professional source and is generally accepted by the field as appropriate.
  6. The data elements together provide for valid measures of desired indicators. Desired indicators include measures of student or institutional performance, equity, and efficiency.

Collecting data according to standard definitions and and formats will help promote accuracy, consistency, and usefulness.

Maintaining huge quantities of data about students in a single locale can be dangerous unless appropriate safeguards are in place. Training and access controls are essential to ensure that only those with a "need to know" have access to the student records, and that the data are not shared inappropriately. This will be discussed in more detail in Step 9.

A critical aspect of this step is the definition and coding of data elements. To the extent possible, it is advisable to refer to documents containing standard definitions for data elements to assist you in this effort. The use of standard data element definitions across education organizations helps to ensure that data will be comparable and, thus, more useful. The Student Data Handbook for Elementary, Secondary, and Early Childhood Education was developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) specifically to promote the use of standard terminology and data elements. This handbook contains a comprehensive listing of data elements that might be used in a student record system. In addition to definitions, there are related entities listed, code tables for some of the data elements, and recommendations for computer formatting.

Another detailed effort to identify what data elements should be included in a student record is the SPEEDE/ExPRESS electronic transcript format, mentioned in Step 1a. SPEEDE/ExPRESS contains a standard set of data elements and formats. The SPEEDE/ExPRESS data elements and formats are consistent with the data elements included in the Student Data Handbook for Elementary, Secondary, and Early Childhood Education, although not always identical. This standard transcript format could be used as a suggested set of data elements to be included in a student record system.

Another standard-setting activity is relevant to this discussion. The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is a technical blueprint for educational software that can ensure that diverse software applications will work seamlessly together. This format is being developed by a group of software vendors under the sponsorship of the Software and Information Industry Association. Knowing about these standards can help system planners and designers to make decisions that will promote interoperability among administrative applications (e.g., financial management, transportation, and cafeteria management) and instructional applications. [See the Resource List for information on how to learn more about SIF.]

One more effort is worthy of discussion here. NCES sponsored the development of standard codes for secondary school courses. Contained in A Pilot Standard National Course Classification System for Secondary Education are codes for the most frequently occurring secondary school courses. This system is meant to aid schools, districts, and states in standardizing course codes so that students moving from one school to another can be more efficiently assigned to the correct courses. Standardized course codes also facilitate the comparison of course-taking patterns of students.

When developing or redesigning a student record system, adopting standards that have been set at a state or national level, or those of a specific vendor's software, provides for more straightforward exchange of data across systems. As more national standards develop, maintaining a match between local records and those standards will allow schools to take advantage of automated exchange methods. With the emergence of national standards and definitions, student record systems within separate education agencies will become part of a larger system of student records. This does not mean there cannot be local flexibility in the selection or structuring of data. It simply means that for data elements that will be shared, it is best to use consistent definitions, preferably in common use. This will help to ensure that information will be accurately interpreted when it is shared or analyzed.

Once you have identified the desired data elements for the system, it is a good idea to develop a data dictionary containing details about each data element and how it will be collected and maintained. Following is a list of types of information you might include in your data dictionary.

Characteristics of a data element to list in your data dictionary
  • Full title of the data element
  • Definition of the data element
  • Code list or list of options
  • Date collected and any other relevant dates
  • Update requirements, including any automated updates
  • Purpose of the data elements
    • Reporting Requirements
    • Potential Uses
  • Required/Optional
  • Format in database
    • Data element type
    • Field Length
    • Delimiter type
  • How to handle missing data
  • Security level
  • Related data elements
  • Mandate for collection
  • Reports in which the data are presented


Using the Handbook to Pick Data Elements

Several states, such as California, Nevada, and Massachusetts, have used the Student Data Handbook for Elementary, Secondary, and Early Childhood Education as the source document for deciding what data elements to collect on individual students. The 2000 Edition of the Handbook contains many new data elements that reflect how data are collected at the state level. It should be noted that the handbook contains a comprehensive listing of all of the data elements that might be collected about individual students in a student record system. There is no federal mandate that all of the data elements be collected and maintained.

Back To Top