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Forum Guide to Metadata
NFES 2009-805
July 2009

Chapter 1. What Are Metadata and Why Are They Important? - What Metadata Are Needed by Your Organization?

Many people in the school business need information to do their jobs. For example, a school principal needs to know how many students are in the ninth grade; a state testing coordinator needs to know how well those students performed on an assessment; a local curriculum coordinator needs to know which of those students are taking advanced courses; and a superintendent needs to know how much it costs to educate those ninth graders. Accessing and interpreting these data requires a host of information management and technology metadata. Technical staff need to know where each piece of data is physically stored, and in what format. Other staff members, including program staff and the data steward, need to understand who owns each data set in the organization; as well as when the data were collected, what time period they represent, why they were collected, and how they are defined.

This type of information (i.e., the who, what, where, when, why, and how) is fundamental to the most basic operation of a data system; but many organizations, both within and outside of education, are unable to answer such basic questions about the data they maintain. The vast majority of organizations also cannot address some of the deeper, and in many cases more important, characteristics of data such as: Is the information private or otherwise sensitive? How are the data being used, if at all? Under what conditions are they valid for policymaking and reporting? How will pending changes in legislation affect current items, definitions, and code lists?

A wide range of working definitions exists for the term "metadata." Not everyone talking about metadata is referring to the same thing.

An example of a typical data and information life cycle is found in exhibit 1.3. When a piece of information is needed, it can be generated, usually as a result of a data collection or through derivation or other processes. The information then exists in storage or in use until, finally, it is retired, archived, or even destroyed depending on its sensitivity and ongoing validity (for example, certain health information, disciplinary records, and assessment scores may be destroyed after a student has left school). Metadata can describe the information at each stage in the cycle; in other words, a comprehensive metadata system can track a single piece of data (or a data set) as it evolves over time. These types of life cycle considerations have driven the development of metadata systems because the individuals who collect, maintain, and use the data require this information to effectively and efficiently manage data throughout its life cycle.