School Accreditation Explained: Does a Seal of Approval Matter?

By: - October 13, 2011 12:00 am

Missouri News Horizon photo

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro supported the state board of education’s decision last month to strip Kansas City schools of their accreditation.

Last month, Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced that it would be stripping Kansas City’s schools of their accreditation next year. Responding to the news, Stephen Green, the school district’s interim superintendent, told reporters that the change wouldn’t impact graduating seniors or make their diplomas less valuable. Those students would be unaffected in applying to colleges and would still be eligible for scholarships, he said, answering two of the first questions many parents and students had.

But the situation raised many more questions. What is the impact of a school system losing its accreditation? And who decides whether a school should be accredited or not? Here is a primer on school accreditation and how Missouri and other states handle it.

What is accreditation? Accreditation is a process by which individual schools or entire school districts are certified as achieving minimum standards of quality. Those standards differ by state. There also are different levels of accreditation. For example, lower-performing schools may be given provisional accreditation but receive increased scrutiny and face additional requirements.

Who does the accrediting? There are two common types of accreditation for public schools. The first is run by individual states, often through an office within the state’s department of education. The second is run by one of six regional accreditation organizations, three of which are now operating under the banner of a company called AdvancED. The regional organizations were originally created to assess the quality of high schools and ensure that they were producing college-ready graduates. Over time, they also began to assess elementary and middle schools and, more recently, entire school districts. Both states and the regional organizations rely on volunteer assessors from the teaching ranks to carry out site visits, in addition to professional staff.

Are schools required to seek accreditation? Not necessarily. About 20 states do their own accreditation and among those, some make school participation voluntary. Other states do require that schools seek regional or other outside accreditation. In some states, such as California and Florida, students who graduate from an unaccredited high school face a higher bar when trying to get into public colleges and universities.

Sometimes, states don’t require accreditation but build in powerful incentives for schools to seek it. In Georgia, for example, students at public high schools accredited either regionally or by the Georgia Accrediting Commission can more easily qualify for the state’s generous HOPE scholarships. When HOPE was introduced in the early 1990s, parents pressured schools to get accredited because they wanted their kids to get the scholarships. “There was a lot at stake,” says Jeff Gagne, education policies director at the Southern Regional Education Board, a regional organization that supports school improvement. “Accreditation took on a much bigger role.”

Can a school district lose its state accreditation but maintain accreditation from a regional body? That’s exactly what’s happening in some of the schools in Kansas City. Even as the entire district loses its state accreditation, two of the district’s six high schools are retaining accreditation through the Midwest branch of AdvancED. This is what the superintendent was referring to when he said that graduating students wouldn’t be affected when they apply to colleges. What he didn’t say was that students graduating from the unaccredited high schools in Kansas City could face difficulties applying to some colleges or qualifying for some scholarships.

State and regional accreditors often look at different things. Generally, state accreditation is based on schools meeting targets set by the state in areas such as test performance and class size. In Missouri, the state’s accreditation process looks primarily at student performance on standardized tests. The Kansas City school district met 3 out of 14 standards on the annual performance scorecard kept by the state, following several years of similarly poor scores.

Regional accreditation, by contrast, often takes a more holistic approach, with schools evaluated on a host of factors including school administration, curriculum, school facilities and board governance, in addition to student performance. It also takes more time. Districts often begin preparing for site visits years in advance. Those visits vary from once every three to ten years, depending on the accreditation agency. Schools usually produce a self-evaluative report before the visit that can be hundreds of pages long.

Why would a school voluntarily seek accreditation if it’s not required? Accreditation signals a school district’s quality and burnishes its reputation. Some school leaders use the accreditation process as a management tool because it can help identify areas for improvement. Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, says regional accreditation provides schools “a structured framework for improvement.”

Accreditation also can help with local school politics: If an outside observer says a local school facility is in need of repair, it can help make the argument for passing a bond to fund the work. “We don’t love doing it, but it’s important to reflect,” says Robert Weintraub a professor of practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College and former headmaster at Brookline High School in Massachusetts. “Ultimately, I don’t think you could do without it.”

How tough is accreditation?  Critics argue that voluntary accreditation could be tougher and is not particularly useful in the movement to bring accountability to education. That’s because good schools seek out accreditation knowing they can get it; bad schools don’t seek it if they suspect they can’t.

Some critics say the accrediting agencies themselves are too soft and laced with conflicts of interest. In an article adapted from their book on education accountability , Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder argue that regional accreditation agencies rely on membership fees from the very schools they assess. The authors also argue that assessment teams have an incentive to go soft because they are made up of teachers who know their school will be on the other end of an assessment some day. Jacobsen, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Education, told Stateline that evaluators have admitted to her: “We don’t want to be too tough, because we know that will be coming back to us soon.”

AdvancED’s Elgart says the culture of accreditation is changing. His agency is bringing on more paid professional evaluators and fashioning a tougher approach. “We’re increasing the rigor of accreditation,” Elgart says.

How often do schools lose accreditation? Not often, though that might be changing. When Kansas City loses its accreditation in January, it will join two other unaccredited districts in Missouri, including the St. Louis district. In an interview with Stateline , Margie Vandeven, the assistant commissioner who oversees accreditation in Missouri, was hard-pressed to think of more than a couple examples of other schools that lost accreditation in the state in recent years.

It’s even less common among regional agencies. “Trying to find someone who had lost their accreditation was near impossible,” Jacobsen says. In 2008, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the three groups in AdvancED, removed accreditation from the Clayton County School District in suburban Atlanta, it was the first time a regional accreditation group had done so in decades. AdvancED has voted to do it again twice since then, for districts in Georgia and North Carolina, and AdvancED’s Elgart says that more districts are likely to face losing accreditation as regional organizations and states focus more on performance.

What happens when a school or district loses accreditation? Again, it depends on the state. In South Carolina, districts that lose accreditation can’t issue diplomas the following year. They’re also ineligible for future state aid until they have submitted an acceptable improvement plan. In Virginia, denial of accreditation at a number of schools in a district could require the school board to review a superintendent, hire an approved turnaround specialist and lead to forced personnel changes or even school closure. Students are eligible to transfer to neighboring districts in Missouri — although the questions of whether neighboring districts are required to accept them, and who pays for their education is still being decided in the courts . When Clayton County lost regional accreditation in Georgia, thousands of students left the school district, which lost millions of dollars in state support and was forced to fire hundreds of teachers.

That impact can go beyond the classroom, as well. In surveys, homebuyers consistently rank quality of schools high on the list of factors they consider when purchasing a home — losing accreditation certainly won’t help a city’s housing market. Further, a 2007 paper by researchers at the Universities of Kentucky and Minnesota found a connection between a district’s performance on state assessments and its bond credit rating. The study’s authors take performance on standardized tests as a proxy for the quality of school leadership. While they don’t explain why better test performance could lead to better bond ratings, the findings suggest that districts that lose accreditation could also find it more difficult to borrow for school improvements.

If a school loses accreditation, does the state take over? Usually not. In most states, a state takeover is seen as a drastic move and it rarely happens. In Virginia, the state can’t ever take over a school. And when takeovers do happen, it’s not always related to accreditation. Michigan, for example, the state took over Detroit schools in both 1999 and 2009 primarily for financial reasons, but most schools in the district retained their accreditation that entire time, to the consternation of some .

In Kansas City’s case, the district will have two years to regain accreditation before the state would take over. If that were to happen, all labor contracts in the district would be considered null, and state leaders would decide who to hire back. It’s unlikely to come to that, Missouri’s Vandeven says. “State government really isn’t in the business to take over and run local school districts.”  

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that school districts in Georgia and North Carolina facing the loss of AdvancED accreditation met the necessary requirements to retain it.

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