Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) estimates of gross primary production (GPP) were validated using field-based estimates of net primary production from the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program across the eastern USA. A total of 54 969 MODIS pixels and co-located FIA plots were analysed to validate MODIS GPP estimates. We used a data resolution of individual MODIS pixels and co-located FIA plots, and used detailed pixel- and plot-specific attributes by applying screening variables (SVs) to assess conditions under which MODIS GPP was most strongly validated. Eight SVs were used to test six hypotheses about the conditions under which MODIS GPP would be most strongly validated. The six hypotheses addressed were (1) MODIS pixel quality checks, (2) FIA plot quality checks, (3) land-cover classification comparability of co-located MODIS pixels and FIA plots, (4) FIA plot homogeneity, (5) FIA plot tree density and (6) MODIS seasonal variation. SVs were assessed in terms of trade-off between improved relations and reduced number of samples. MODIS seasonal variation and FIA plot tree density were the two most efficient SVs, followed by basic quality checks for each data set. Sequential application of SVs indicated that combined usage of five of the eight SVs provided an efficient data set of 17 090 co-located MODIS pixels and FIA plots, which raised the Pearson correlation coefficient from 0.01 for the Complete data set of 54 969 plots to 0.48 for this screened subset of 17 090 plots. The screened subset of plots exhibited good representation of the Complete data set in terms of species abundance, plot distribution and mean productivity. We conclude that the application of SVs provides a useful approach to ensure compatibility of two data sets for broad-scale forest carbon budget analysis and monitoring.