School accreditation may not be top of mind for parents and pundits even though it’s an accomplishment that most district leaders want to have on their performance reviews and résumés. Another problem that is likely not on parents’ radars: the metrics of state accountability systems are often out of sync with bigger-picture accreditation evaluations.
This disconnect hinders the ability of schools and districts to improve, according to a new report by Mark A. Elgart, president and CEO of Cognia, a professional development and accreditation nonprofit. “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,” Elgart notes. “However, state accountability and accreditation too often cross wires, leading to confusion or narrowing the scope of what can be explored.”
State-run accountability systems, of course, measure one-time indicators such as student achievement, growth, graduation rates, indicators of college and career readiness, and school climate, among other factors. Regional accreditors, on the other hand, evaluate how well schools and districts perform and where they fall short on large-scale school improvement initiatives, Elgar explains.
About 46,000 schools and districts in the U.S. and other countries are accredited by four regional organizations: the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, The Accrediting Commission for Schools Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and Cognia.
Where accountability collides with school accreditation
Elgart identified four areas where accreditation and accountability clash:
- What’s in a name? Officials sometimes say a school has been “accredited” when it reaches state performance goals. Elgar calls the conflation of the terms confusing and counterproductive because accountability systems do not include rigorous, long-term peer reviews or collect enough evidence to identify the root causes of a school’s challenges.
- Compulsory accreditation. Some states want all schools and districts to be peer-reviewed so the accreditation process will reveal steps for improvement. But compulsory accreditation does not work because “many schools are simply not ready or willing to invest time and effort in a rigorous process of self-reflection and peer review,” Elgar says.
- Checklist accreditation. Fifteen states require accreditation through their departments of education, using a checklist of data points to determine which schools get more money for high performance or special attention to make improvements. But this “state accreditation” does not involve professional peer review or focus on improving quality and results. The results are therefore used primarily for budgetary purposes, Elgar says.
- Legislating aspects of accreditation. Accreditation laws in some states emphasize test scores and financial management rather than student engagement and instructional quality. These regulations not only duplicate state accountability systems, but they also target schools for punishment without providing insight into the factors causing poor performance.
How to get the best of both systems
In five states—Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Utah—schools can qualify for state incentives by pursuing regional accreditation, which, in some cases, serves as a substitute for state requirements. Here are three more ways that Elgar says accountability and accreditation can work together to best serve schools and administrators:
- Broaden the scope of information gathered. “Non-academic” factors—such as culture, the effectiveness of teaching and learning, quality of leadership, and student engagement—reveal as much about school performance as do tests and graduation rates. These measures can be benchmarked to determine progress and compare with other schools and districts.
- Use assessments to guide improvements over time. Testing better reveals student achievement when results are tracked over a multi-year period. Interim assessments are particularly effective in helping teachers plan intervention and enrichment.
- Identify new ways to support low-performing schools. Kentucky’s review process tracks such factors as instructional quality, curriculum design, leadership capacity, teacher morale, student advising, and community engagement. Low-performing public schools in Kentucky, for example, are reviewed by teams of outside experts who then work with school leaders to develop improvement plans. In North Dakota, a similar approach has bolstered the state’s efforts to improve the performance of its 517 schools and 227 districts.