Accreditation is the process through which a school's services and operations are reviewed by an accrediting agency to determine if the school meets the minimum standards necessary to provide a quality education. There are six private, nonprofit regional accreditation agencies that accredit over 19,000 high schools and 9,000 other schools throughout the nation (Portner, 1997). To qualify for accreditation, schools must conduct a self-study, receive a visit from an accreditation committee, and follow any recommendations the committee makes toward improving its educational programming. Since most colleges prefer to accept students from accredited high schools, accreditation is valuable to students as well as instructors, administrators, school districts, and tax payers.
Keywords Accreditation; Accreditation Agency; Curriculum; Fees; Focus Visit; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Self-Study; Standards
Although public education falls under some federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, there is no centralized governance of the nation's schools. In recent years, state and local governments have increased supervision over education, especially with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, but schools still have considerable autonomy. For more than a century, educators have seen the need to measure school programs against agreed-upon standards of excellence by awarding accredited status to schools. Six regional accrediting associations provide programs and services to monitor school performance and improvement efforts. These associations serve anywhere from 2 to 19 states. Accreditation agencies aim to maximize student learning by relaying best practices about student learning and support of learning to the schools they serve (New England Association of Schools and Colleges, n.d.[a]).
The accreditation process begins with a school applying for accreditation and paying all required fees. Guided by standards outlined by the accreditation agency, the school must then conduct a self-study of its programs, a process which can take up to a year to complete. These standards are research-based practices and concepts designed to guide schools in every facet of education, including the academic, civic, and social development of their students. They are periodically reviewed and adjusted in order to stay abreast of current best practices. In recent years, keeping up with best practices has shifted the standards' focus from administration and toward teaching and learning (Manzo, 2000).
The school then receives a site visit from an accreditation committee which evaluates the school on the goals and standards described in the school's self-study. A typical accreditation visit will include interviews with instructors about their curricula, staff members asked about their dropout statistics and other information, an inspection of all facilities, and making sure that the equipment in the labs is all updated and in working order. The committee completes a report on “the quality and comprehensiveness of the school’s self-study, offers recommendations for further study and implementation, and assesses the extent to which standards are met” (Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, 2007, p. iv). The school uses this report to establish goals and begin implementing processes to reach these goals.
A school that is awarded accreditation has met the standards outlined in the self-study, "and is willing to maintain [the standards] and improve its educational programming by implementing the recommendations of the evaluation team" (NEASC, n.d.[a]). Schools may be accredited from anywhere between five and ten years, but a interim site visit or report may be required to document the school's progress toward meeting the accreditation recommendations. The year before accreditation is due to expire, the school begins the accreditation process again with another self-study (Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, 2007).
There are six private, nonprofit regional accreditation agencies that accredit over 19,000 high schools and 9,000 other schools throughout the nation (Portner, 1997). Almost all have been in existence since the late 1800s and early 1900s.
• The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSACS) serves five states: Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania plus the District of Columbia (Middle States Association, 2006). It accredits over 60% of the high schools that it serves (Portner, 1997).
• The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), founded in1885, is the nation's oldest regional accrediting association, and serves six states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont (NEASC, n.d.[b]). It accredits over 75% of the high schools in the states it serves (Portner, 1997).
• The North Central Association of Schools and Colleges (NCASC) serves the most states of any regional accreditation agency: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming (Portner, 1997; North Central Association of Schools, 2007). It accredits about 50% of the high schools in states that it serves (Portner, 1997).
• The Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (NAAS) serves seven states: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington (NAAS, 2005). It accredits over 90% of the high schools in states that it serves (Portner, 1997).
• The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) serves 11 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia (Southern Association of Colleges, 2006). It accredits over 90% of the high schools in the states it serves (Portner, 1997).
• The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), founded in 1962 serves only two states: California and Hawaii (Portner, 1997; Western Association of Schools, n.d.). It accredits about 95% of the high schools in the states it serves (Portner, 1997).
There are annual dues for accreditation. The fee schedules vary with each agency: some charge a flat fee, some base fees on the size of the school, and still others base fees on the type of school (i.e. elementary, middle, high, all inclusive K-12, etc) The lowest annual fee is currently $200 (NAAS, 2006), and the highest is currently over $1,000 (NEASC, n.d.[c]).
Other fees may also be associated with accreditation. In addition to membership fees, schools may be charged self-study fees based on the number of committee members involved, initial visit fees, application fees, revisit fees, rescheduling fees, revisiting fees for schools that require a focus visit, and appeals fees (WASC Fee Schedule, 2007).
Standards of Accreditation
Accreditation agencies develop standards for accreditation that serve as benchmarks for accreditation decisions. As part of a school's self-study, school personnel, students, and the community address each standard by describing how well the school meets it and, if it does not, how it plans to do so in the future....
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