Data Definitions


Data Definitions
Adopt common data definitions within state education data systems.

What is the issue and why is it important?

Education leaders need to use accurate, timely data to make decisions on how to improve student achievement. To ensure the data are useful, education leaders should ensure that practitioners develop data definitions that guide the collection and interpretation of education data elements. Historically, these definitions were developed independently for each local school system in a state, including school districts, state education and work force agencies, and colleges and universities. Local officials gave meaning to their own data elements, but those meanings did not necessarily match the meanings of similar elements elsewhere.

If the most common data elements are not defined the same by school districts, state education and work force agencies, and colleges and universities, and analysts cannot interpret the data. Having commonly defined data elements and systematic ways to reconcile differences built into their data systems allow multiple data systems to match or merge records more accurately. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Education Data Standards (CEDS), “As the efforts of such a diverse group of data users move forward, the ability to communicate via a common language becomes vital, allowing education stakeholders, including early childhood educators through postsecondary administrators, parents, students, legislators and researchers, to more efficiently work together toward ensuring student success, using consistent and comparable data throughout all education levels and sectors.”

One difference in defining data elements is the meaning of first-generation college student. Some institutions base the definition on the education level of the student’s mother, while others base it on the education level of either parent. In addition, the years of college completed varies: for some, it means that a parent enrolled in college but did not graduate; for others, it means the parent graduated. For some, it implies the parent’s college was a four-year institution, and for others, it implies any postsecondary institution, including a technical or community college.

Data practitioners develop data dictionaries to delineate the details of the definition. In addition, these dictionaries provide guidelines on how to record the data and help analysts understand the limitations on interpreting the data. The ultimate goal of accurately defined data elements is to obtain data that stakeholders can widely share and analyze. If the data are not based on mutually understood definitions, stakeholders cannot share their data or merge them with other data; analyses and decisions can be compromised.

What is the status in SREB states?

At least 10 SREB states participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s CEDS Stakeholder Group. CEDS is a “national collaborative effort to develop voluntary, common data standards for a key set of education data elements to streamline the exchange, comparison, and understanding of data within and across P-20W institutions and sectors.”

According to the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), all SREB states — except South Carolina — have established state education agency data governance committees. Establishing one of these committees is part of a state’s progress in achieving DQC’s 10 State Actions to Ensure Effective Data Use. DQC also recommends that states establish a cross-agency data governance committee or council, with authority. Currently, all SREB states, except Alabama and Florida, each have such a committee.

We will also be answering these questions:

  • What if SREB states do not make adequate progress on this issue?
  • What measurements can SREB states use to assess progress?
  • What are some next steps SREB states can take?
  • Where can I learn more?