The United States relies on two separate systems—state-run accountability and voluntary regional accreditation—to know whether schools are meeting academic requirements and fiduciary responsibilities and whether they can deliver the results we expect.

But according to a new report by Dr. Mark A. Elgart, president and CEO of Cognia, “in too many cases, state accountability and voluntary accreditation collide, reducing the impact of both processes.”

“Accreditation identifies what graduation rates, test scores, and other indicators cannot tell on their own—what takes place in the school that leads to its results. However, state accountability and accreditation too often cross wires, leading to confusion or narrowing the scope of what can be explored,” Elgart notes.

Two Approaches to Improving School Performance

The primary form of accountability is state run and identifies one-time school performance against a small set of indicators (student achievement, growth, graduation rates, indicators of postsecondary and career readiness, and other factors, such as school climate). Meanwhile, voluntary regional accreditation provides the evidence and guidance needed to help schools launch or continually evolve a comprehensive improvement effort. The accreditation system evaluates information about how well schools and school districts perform, where they fall short, and what they can do to be even more successful in the future.

Four regional organizations accredit about 46,000 schools and districts in the U.S. and other countries. Those organizations are the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and The Accrediting Commission for Schools Western Association of Schools, and Colleges (ACS WASC); and Cognia, which historically has accredited schools primarily in the southern, northwestern, and north central regions of the United States.

States with the Most Effective Policies—and Those with No Policies

The most effective policies reflect those in five states—Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Utah—that have collaborative agreements that make it possible for schools to meet accreditation requirements or qualify for state incentives by pursuing regional accreditation, avoiding duplication of effort and redundant reporting. Collaborative agreements differ from state to state, but generally allow:

  • Regional accreditation as a substitute for some or all of the state’s requirements
  • Elements of regional accreditation’s process or reporting in place of a similar process or report in the state’s system
  • A site review by a regional accreditor that replaces the state’s onsite external review.

In addition, two states—Nebraska and West Virginia—allow schools to choose from a list of accreditors, including state, regional, or independent accreditors, and a few states also allow for regional accreditation in lieu of state accreditation.

By contrast, 28 states and the District of Columbia have no system of accreditation or requirement for regional accreditation. Their schools may still pursue regional accreditation voluntarily, out of a desire to engage in a formal continuous improvement process that will earn them nationally recognized credentials.

Where Accountability and Voluntary Accreditation Collide

Across the remaining states, Elgart identifies four instances where accreditation and accountability do not align.

Example 1: What’s in a Name? In some instances, state officials say that a school that has reached the state’s performance goals has been “accredited” by the state. This misuse of the term is confusing and counterproductive. The accountability system neither includes the rigorous, long-term process of peer review, nor is the evidence gathered comprehensive enough in scope and context to identify the root causes of performance that enable schools to take action to improve. 

Example 2: Compulsory accreditation. Sometimes, state officials want every school and district to undergo the peer review process and use accreditation as the basis for determining needs for improvement. However, because many schools are simply not ready or willing to invest time and effort in a rigorous process of self-reflection and peer review, compulsory accreditation does not work.

Example 3: Checklist accreditation. Fifteen states—Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming—require state accreditation through the state department of education. These states use a checklist of discrete data points with quantifiable cut scores for performance to determine which schools get more money for high performance or special attention to improve (South Carolina also allows for regional accreditation for schools and systems). Though called state accreditation, this approach neither involves professionals reviewing practices in the schools, nor does it focus on improving quality and results. The results of the process are used for fiduciary purposes and are not focused on growth or improvement.

Example 4: Legislating aspects of accreditation. Some lawmakers seek to use state statutes to underscore the importance of test scores and financial management in accreditation and limit the focus on other areas (such as student engagement and instructional quality). Such an approach duplicates the existing accountability system and merely identifies the schools that are not doing well and targets them for punitive actions; it provides no actionable information about what factors, in combination, are leading to poor performance. Nor does this approach help the institution achieve better performance. To create its own internal accrediting body, a state would have to create a new bureaucracy to review institutional data, manage site visits and determine accreditation status, and provide support systems for ongoing improvement. Legislating a new system of accreditation in this way would do so at a high cost to taxpayers with no assurances of quality.

Getting the Best of Both Systems

The report identifies five ways states, districts, and schools can get the best out of state accountability and voluntary regional accreditation.

Broaden the kinds of information gathered. So-called “non-academic” factors—such as culture, effectiveness of teaching and learning, quality of leadership, student engagement, and resource allocation are just as important to student learning as proficiency on tests and graduation rates. Meanwhile, effectively measuring, monitoring, and improving the complex conditions of any system (whether education, healthcare and hospitals, the economy, or the criminal justice system) require information about a multitude of internal and external factors and how they have changed over time. These measures can be benchmarked to determine progress and/or compared with industry standards or other similar entities.

Use assessments to guide corrective student/school-level actions over time. Looking at testing not as a one-time event but as a view of student achievement over a multi-year period is a valuable exercise. Benchmark or interim assessments offer real-time data that can drive supports and ultimately improve results and growth.

Identify new ways to support low-performing schools. Bolstering continuous improvement efforts statewide provides comprehensive and reliable data to meet federal and state requirements, make informed decisions, and guide and validate the state’s efforts to achieve college and career readiness. Kentucky, for example, has instituted a diagnostic review process that takes into consideration such factors as instructional quality, curriculum design, leadership capacity, teacher morale, student advising, and community engagement that influence learning. Every low-performing public school in Kentucky undergoes external review with teams of experts who visit the school, monitor performance, and work with school leaders to develop improvement plans based on actual needs identified in the review. In North Dakota, accreditation practices, such as site visits, external reviews, and planning and coaching, have played a crucial role in the state’s efforts to improve the performance of each of its 517 schools and 227 districts—and the state system as a whole. These efforts have increased the expertise and capacity of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI), which operates on a tight budget, to efficiently monitor school performance.

Maintain the distinction between regional accreditation and state accountability. A separation of these programs—and allowing accreditation to be voluntary—assures that the unique benefits of both systems persist and strengthen one another. Maintaining their distinctions requires policymakers to resist the urge to legislate accreditation policy beyond identifying preferred regional accreditors or providing incentives (not mandates) for schools to engage in the accreditation process.

Today, more than ever, accreditors and states need to work together and reexamine our accountability systems, the report says.

“We know that every student learns in a unique manner, and our accountability systems have to integrate how student-centered learning affects student outcomes,” notes Elgart. “We need to ensure that student success is the focus of improvement and that teachers are teaching not only ‘what’ students need to learn but ‘how’ to learn, so that they have the capability and capacity to be life-long learners to support their career and/or personal aspirations.”

The report encourages education and government leaders to apply the distinct and separate strengths of state accountability systems and voluntary regional K–12 accreditation to mutually reinforce improvements in schools and in student outcomes.

About Cognia

Cognia is a global, nonprofit improvement organization dedicated to helping institutions and other education providers grow learners, teachers, and leaders. Cognia offers accreditation and certification, assessment, and improvement services within a framework of continuous improvement. Serving 40,000 public and private institutions from early learning through high school in 90 countries, Cognia brings a global perspective to advancing teaching and learning.