How can we be sure that the nation’s 58 million students receive the best education possible? How do we know how well institutions are meeting the academic requirements and fiduciary responsibilities that are crucially important to policymakers and the public? What do schools need to know about their own operations that can help them achieve the results that we expect and continuously get better?

These questions are the focus of two different approaches—accountability and accreditation— that ought to work together in more mutually reinforcing ways to improve student and school performance.

1. State accountability systems. State education accountability systems are federally mandated, state-determined efforts to set goals for performance that measure, rate, and rank schools on indicators of school quality and student success. Traditionally, states have monitored primarily student success on standardized tests, which takes the temperature of performance at a particular point in time, and fiscal accountability. Today’s state accountability systems, established as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Inform parents, advocates, and the community about how well schools are performing on a range of measures, such as chronic absenteeism college and career readiness and school climate, They provide important data to determine how to use resources more effectively, identify under-performing schools that need more support as well as those with programs and practices resulting in high performance or progress that can be used as model practice.

2. Regional K-12 accreditation. Regional K-12 accreditation is a private, not-for-profit system of voluntary self-regulation by the education profession to help improve practice and results. It is a rigorous multi-year process in which school and district leaders work with teams of peer reviewers to demonstrate that their schools meet or exceed standards set by the profession, based on research about what helps improve school and student performance. Four regional accreditors—including the New England, Middle States, and Western Associations of Schools and Cognia (which historically has accredited schools primarily in the Southern, Northwestern, and North central regions) oversee the process.

Incorporating a voluntary regional accreditation process, specifically one with third-party review within a continuous improvement framework, picks up where accountability leaves off. Accreditation identifies what takes place in the school that leads to its results. It evaluates how well schools and school districts perform, where they fall short, and how they can routinely become more successful in the future.


State Accountability Systems and Voluntary Regional Accreditation: A Comparison


State Accountability Systems Regional Accreditation
Purpose Identify desired results Help the education profession and students improve to achieve the desired results
Key Audience State and district policymakers/decision-makers, the public District and building educators, community stakeholders, and families, as well as post-secondary institutions.
Participation Compulsory Voluntary
Actions sought Compliance to rules and expectations School-directed improvement by educators working together and with parents and community
Characteristic of Data Comparable (across schools, districts, states) Actionable by school
What Is Measured Student academic achievement, student growth, progress of English language proficiency, graduation rates, and a few additional indicators of quality and student success such as school climate Standards of quality in instruction, student engagement, resource allocation, leadership, governance, and other areas
What Educators Can Do Rank and Rate Performance

Consider schoolwide interventions

Engage partners to facilitate access to professional learning and turnaround support

Develop high-leverage strategies, internal systems, and routines for improvement

Identify improvement priorities to remediate specific problems

Search for innovative ways to address challenging issues

Offer professional learning

Introduce a new improvement cycle


State accountability systems and the voluntary system of regional K-12 accreditation, which have typically operated separately, must work together in more mutually reinforcing ways to improve schools and outcomes for students while maintaining the unique strengths and characteristics that align with the specific purposes of each activity.

Work Together to Improve School and Student Performance

The two systems can work well together. For example, five states—Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Utah—have collaborative agreements that make it possible for schools to meet state accountability requirements or qualify for state incentives by pursuing regional accreditation, with minimal duplication of effort or reporting. Collaborative agreements differ from state to state, but generally allow:

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

Incentives may include:

  • State-awarded scholarships limited to students from accredited schools
  • Ease of transfer of credits
  • Digital learning or online learning credits required from accredited provider

Where Accountability and Accreditation Collide

Meanwhile, 28 states and the District of Columbia have no system of accreditation nor a requirement to be accredited by an independent agency. Schools in these states that pursue regional accreditation do so voluntarily, out of a desire to engage in a formal continuous improvement process that will earn them nationally recognized credentials. Incentives offered are not government conferred.

Examples where state policy collides with voluntary regional accreditation, reducing the impact of both processes.

Example One: What’s in a Name? In some instances, state lawmakers or education officials erroneously call their schools “accredited” when they meet state accountability requirements. The accountability system does not include the long-term, rigorous process of peer review and the evidence gathered about performance is too limited in scope and context to provide educators insight into what is required to help schools improve.

Example Two: Compulsory accreditation. In some cases, state officials buy into the process of accreditation so much that they want every school and district to undergo the peer review process and use accreditation as the basis for determining how each individual school can improve. However, many schools simply are not ready or are unwilling to invest time and effort in self- and peer review. Accreditation should not be compulsory.

Example Three: Checklist accountability. 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, and only South Carolina allows for regional accreditation. 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 interventions to improve. 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 Four: Legislative changes to 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 governance and equity). Such an approach duplicates the existing accountability system and merely identifies the schools that are not doing well, targets them for punitive actions; it provides no actionable information about what factors, in combination, are leading to poor performance.

States should give every school, district, and community the opportunity and the responsibility to commit and engage in a continuous system of improvement

Combining the Best of Compliance and Student-based Accountability with the Power of Accreditation

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has moved accountability beyond narrow approaches to school improvement focused solely on student test results, graduation rates, and math and reading scores. But accountability can evolve further by aligning systems more closely with accreditation so both mutually reinforce each other and strengthen the commitment to continuous improvement. Some states have moved in this direction, but all can consider strategies to further strengthen their accountability systems.

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, requires information about a multitude of internal and external factors and how they have changed over time.

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. 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 school in Kentucky undergoes external evaluation 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 evaluation.

Maintain the distinction between regional accreditation and state accountability. This 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.

Keep regional accreditation voluntary and independent from the state accountability system. This includes resisting the urge to legislate accreditation policy beyond identifying preferred regional accreditors or providing incentives, not mandates, for schools to use the accreditation process. The peer review process is a powerful way of holding educators to  quality standards in ways that inform state accountability systems about what is happening in a particular school. Some states are connecting that information through a data dashboard to give state and district officials a deep and timely look at the quality of their schools.

The disruption in schooling caused by the pandemic has revealed significant areas in need of improvement and new challenges that are impeding the abilities of schools to advance learning.  Consequently, states should give every school, district, and community the opportunity and the responsibility to commit and engage in a continuous system of improvement that reveals the unique challenges and opportunities for improvement that must be addressed to improve student learning. To support these efforts, state accountability systems and the voluntary system of regional K-12 accreditation, which have typically operated separately, must work together in more mutually reinforcing ways to improve schools and outcomes for students while maintaining the unique strengths and characteristics that align with the specific purposes of each activity.


This article was based on the “Role of Accountability Systems and Regional Accreditation in Improving K-12 Education.” Read the full paper.

Private: Mark A. Elgart, Ed.D.
Dr. Mark A. Elgart has served as president and CEO of Cognia since 2002. Under his leadership Cognia was established, following the merger of AdvancED and Measured Progress, to bridge the gap between school evaluation and student assessment.  Cognia serves as the trusted partner with over 36,000 institutions in 85 countries to advance learning for 25 million students.  Elgart has a long, distinguished career of 40 years as an educational leader including time as a math and physics teacher, school principal, and chief executive leading a global, education non-profit.  He is annually recognized, both locally and internationally, as an influential leader in education due to his impact on education policy and the work of schools.  He is an internationally recognized speaker on education and frequent author on educational issues including recent whitepapers on federal policy and school improvement.  In education, Elgart is widely viewed as the foremost authority on school improvement and education quality.  Elgart earned a bachelor’s  in Mathematics from Springfield College, a master’s in Educational Administration from Westfield State College, and Doctorate in Education in Leadership in Schooling from the University of Massachusetts.