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Forum Guide to Metadata
NFES 2009-805
July 2009

Chapter 1. What Are Metadata and Why Are They Important? - The Key Points of this Chapter

  • Metadata systems may not have been necessary when data sets were relatively small, simply organized, and used by only a handful of people. However, the education enterprise has grown in complexity over the past decades, resulting in the exponential growth of information collected, stored, managed, used, and reported by education organizations.
  • Metadata provide the context needed to interpret data, and are most simply defined as "data about data." A more technically precise definition is "structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage information."
  • High quality metadata deliver too much value to dismiss them as anything less than an essential business management tool. They are the backbone of efficient, accurate, and useful data systems.
  • A robust metadata system improves the accuracy of data use and interpretation, as well as the efficiency of data access, transfer, and storage. The benefits are numerous for a wide range of education stakeholders, including policymakers, administrators, technologists, program staff, and instructional staff.
  • Developing a metadata system is a substantial undertaking that requires significant time, expertise, commitment, and money; but a sound metadata system should yield benefits that far outweigh the costs of implementation.

Why should instructional staff, such as teachers and principals, care about metadata?

Data are frequently used to evaluate school, student, and even teacher performance. Anyone with an interest in accurate and fair school evaluation should have a corresponding interest in improving the accuracy and transparency of data collection, maintenance, reporting, and use—all of which can be derived from a robust metadata system. Furthermore, instructional staff and students benefit when metadata help make information needed to guide instruction available in a timely manner and useful format.