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Forum Curriculum for Improving Education Data
NCES 2007-808
May 2007

Lesson: Creating and Using a Data Dictionary


Data Steward/Coordinator


This lesson introduces the concepts related to creating and/or using a data dictionary.


  • Be able to define the structure and function of a data dictionary.
  • Write useful definitions of data elements.
  • Locate useful models of a data dictionary.

Instructor Preparation

  • Determine if your state department of education has a data dictionary. If so, determine the URL for accessing it online or download a file to print and distribute to participants.
  • Make three copies of the Data Element Description form for each participant.
  • Make a single copy of the Data Dictionary Basics sheet (which can be found on the Lesson Resources column at the top of this page) for each participant.

Essential Learnings

  • A data dictionary helps create quality data from the moment of data entry.
  • Most states have defined data dictionaries for data that Local Education Agencies (LEAs) are required to report. Having the LEA adopt those standards reduces the time needed to correct errors in reports to and from the state.
  • Creating entries for the data dictionary for LEA-specific data elements is time consuming, but saves time in the long run. The process should involve all key players in the LEA.
  • Documentation of data entry standards based on the data dictionary that focuses on frequently used data elements should be easily accessible to data entry staff.