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  • Overview
  • Uses of Data
  • Key Concepts
  • Survey Design
  • Data Quality & Comparability
  • Contact Information
  • Methodology & Evaluation Reports

Since its inception, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has been committed to the policy of explaining its statistical methods to its customers and of seeking to avoid misinterpretation of its published data. The reason for this policy is to assure customers that proper statistical standards and techniques have been observed, to guide them in the appropriate use of information from NCES, and to make them aware of the known limitations of NCES data. This web edition of the NCES Handbook of Survey Methods continues this commitment by presenting descriptions of how each survey program in NCES obtains and prepares the data it publishes.

NCES statistics are used for many purposes. This handbook aims to provide users of NCES data with the most current information necessary to evaluate the suitability of the statistics for their needs, with a focus on the methodologies for survey design, data collection, and data processing.

NCES Role and Organization

Among federal agencies collecting and issuing statistics, NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. The Center’s data serve the needs of Congress, other federal agencies, national education associations, academic education researchers, business, and the general public. NCES is a component of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the Department of Education.

Within NCES, the Statistical Standards and Data Confidentiality Staff, under the direction of the NCES Chief Statistician, provide expertise in statistical standards and methodology, technology, and customer service activities across subject–matter lines. The specific survey programs of NCES have developed around subject–matter and grade–level areas, and each of the survey programs falls under one of the following three NCES divisions:

  • Assessment
  • Sample Surveys
  • Administrative Data

Organization of the Handbook

To facilitate locating similar information for the various programs, the information in each of these chapters is presented in a uniform format with the following standard sections and headings:

  1. Overview. This section includes a description of the purpose of the survey, the type of information collected in the survey, and the periodicity of the survey.
  2. Uses of Data. This section summarizes the range of issues addressed by the data collected in the survey.
  3. Key Concepts. This section provides the definitions of a few important concepts specific to the survey.
  4. Survey Design. This section describes the target population, sample design, data collection and processing procedures, estimation methods, and future plans for the survey. Note that the handbook does not include a list of the data elements collected by each survey. That information can be found in the survey questionnaires, electronic codebooks, data analysis systems (available through, or the ED Data Inventory (see However, some general remarks about the data collected can be made here:

    • All race/ethnicity data are collected according to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards. For all surveys, data on individuals can be disaggregated by “Black,” “White,” “Hispanic,” and “Other;” for some surveys, data can also be disaggregated by “Asian/Pacific Islander” and “American Native or Alaska Native.”
    • All data on individuals can be disaggregated by sex.
    • All elementary/secondary student-level data collections include information on limited-English proficiency and student disability.
    • School-level data collections include information on programs and services offered.
  5. Data Quality and Comparability. This section describes the appropriate method to use for estimating sampling error for sample surveys and also presents important findings related to nonsampling error (such as coverage error, unit and item nonresponse error, and measurement error). In addition, this section provides summary descriptions of recent design and/or questionnaire changes as well as information on comparability of similar data collected in other studies.
  6. Contact Information. This section lists the name of the main contact person for each survey along with a telephone number, e-mail address, and mailing address. Note that at NCES, telephone numbers are assigned according to survey program; staff members leaving one survey program for another have to change telephone numbers. To find out the current number for a particular staff member, see the NCES Staff Directory To find out the current contacts for a particular survey program, please check the program’s web site (NCES survey web site addresses are listed in appendix D).
  7. Methodology and Evaluation Reports. This section lists the primary recent methodological reports for the survey. Use the NCES number provided to find a particular report through the NCES Electronic Catalog ( Each NCES survey Web site also contains a list of that survey’s publications.