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Forum Guide to Metadata
NFES 2009-805
July 2009


The National Forum on Education Statistics (the Forum) is pleased to present the Forum Guide to Metadata: The Meaning Behind Education Data. One goal of the Forum is to improve the quality of education data gathered for use by policymakers and program decisionmakers. An approach to furthering this goal has been to pool the collective experiences of Forum members to produce "best practice" guides in areas of high interest to those who collect, maintain, and use data about elementary and secondary education. The appropriate and effective use of metadata in education agencies is one of those high interest areas.

The purpose of this guide is to empower people to more effectively use data as information. To accomplish this, the publication explains what metadata are; why metadata are critical to the development of sound education data systems; what components comprise a metadata system; what value metadata bring to data management and use; and how to implement and use a metadata system in an education organization. The primary audiences for this guide include technology, program, policymaking, administrative, and data staff in state and local education agencies. However, it may also be useful to other education stakeholders, including anyone engaged in operations or decisionmaking that depend on accurate, reliable, and timely information.

In This Guide

  • Chapter 1 introduces the concept of metadata, or data about data, especially as related to education agencies and education data systems. Chapter 1 defines the term and explains why metadata are a critical component of sound education data systems and data management.
  • Chapter 2 identifies common components of a metadata system for education organizations, including key points influencing metadata governance, metadata models, metadata item inventories, and comprehensive data dictionaries.
  • Chapter 3 presents examples of metadata items commonly used by education organizations to improve data quality; technical operations; and data management, reporting, and use.
  • Chapter 4 recommends planning processes and issues specific to metadata that contribute to the successful implementation of a metadata system in an education setting.
  • Chapter 5 summarizes why it is imperative for education organizations to develop and implement a robust metadata system.
  • Appendix A provides an example of standard definitions for common words that can be adapted to meet the needs of state and local education agencies around the nation. This type of tool helps to standardize data element names throughout an organization.
  • Appendix B provides a real-world example of how a business rule gets developed.
  • Appendix C defines the concept of a metadata registry and includes descriptions of several well-known metadata registries and standards available online.
  • Appendix D provides a description of a metadata/business intelligence staff training program that can be adapted to meet the needs of state and local education agencies around the nation.
  • Appendix E lists other resources related to metadata and education data quality, including sources referenced in the document and materials available from the National Forum on Education Statistics (the Forum), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and other organizations.
This document's
intended audience
includes technology,
program, policymaking,
administrative, and data
staff in state and local
education agencies.

The National Cooperative Education Statistics System

The work of the Forum is a key aspect of the National Cooperative Education Statistics System (the Cooperative System). The Cooperative System was established to produce and maintain, with the cooperation of the states, comparable and uniform educational information and data that are useful for policymaking at the federal, state, and local levels. To assist in meeting this goal, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), within the U.S. Department of Education, established the National Forum on Education Statistics to improve the collection, reporting, and use of elementary and secondary education statistics. The Forum deals with issues in education data policy, sponsors innovations in data collection and reporting, and provides technical assistance to improve state and local data systems.

Development of Forum Products

Members of the Forum establish task forces to develop best practice guides in data–related areas of interest to federal, state, and local education agencies. NCES provides management oversight of this work, but the content comes from the collective experience of the state and school district task force members who review all products iteratively throughout the development process. Documents prepared, reviewed, and approved by task force members undergo a formal public review. This public review consists of focus groups with representatives of the product's intended audience, review sessions at relevant regional or national conferences, or technical reviews by acknowledged experts in the field. In addition, all draft documents are posted on the Forum website prior to publication so that any interested individuals or organizations can provide feedback. After the task force oversees the integration of public review comments and approves the document a final time, publications are subject to examination by members of the Forum standing committee sponsoring the project. The entire Forum (approximately 120 members) then reviews and formally votes to approve the document. NCES provides final review and approval prior to publication.