Accountability, as practiced these days under the No Child Left Behind Act and various state systems, purports to be about improvement. But we all know that improvement requires more than just measurement. 

Accountability, as practiced these days under the No Child Left Behind Act and various state systems, purports to be about improvement. But we all know that improvement requires more than just measurement. The scale tells us that we need to lose weight – it doesn’t tell us how or even why we need to slim down. Without an analysis of our eating patterns, the amount of exercise we get, or even, the ways in which we might use food as an emotional crutch, the number on the scale is pretty meaningless. So too is the case with the results we get from annual standardized testing. The scores let us know if we’re hitting the mark or not and, under NCLB, we know which groups of kids are making it and which are not. This is useful information but insufficient when it comes to moving the line on the scale.

Although it has received much less attention than accountability, accreditation has become an important school and district improvement tool over the last decade. Accreditation is a voluntary method of quality assurance developed more than 100 years ago by American universities and secondary schools and designed primarily to distinguish schools adhering to a set of educational standards. In recent years, accreditation has been transformed from an exercise centered almost exclusively on inputs to a research-based process for the comprehensive evaluation of an institution's effectiveness.

Honest self-evaluation of an institution’s vision, strategies, priorities, leadership, programs and resources against a set of standards and associated indicators is unparalleled in its ability to uncover and bring into sharp focus special challenges and opportunities that, when addressed, often lead to significant improvement.

Using a set of rigorous protocols, accreditation examines the whole institution—the programs, the cultural context, the community of stakeholders – along with student performance data to determine how well the parts work together to meet the needs of learners. The process is fully aligned with the goals of school improvement that challenge educators to commit to continuously push beyond the line of current competence, to frame and ask new and deeper questions, and to realize more than the completion of a management plan.

Accreditation is an enriching experience for participating institutions, because they benefit from the transformative power in the process. Indeed, it is not the outcome but, rather, the process of accreditation that yields the greatest return on investment for institutions. Honest self-evaluation of an institution’s vision, strategies, priorities, leadership, programs and resources against a set of standards and associated indicators is unparalleled in its ability to uncover and bring into sharp focus special challenges and opportunities that, when addressed, often lead to significant improvement.

As Congress works to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and as state leaders design and implement significantly enhanced systems of accountability, there is much that they can draw upon from strong accreditation processes to drive continuous improvement through next-generation accountability systems.  This can be done through the unification or close alignment of both processes – accreditation and accountability – or through the incorporation of a number of the essential elements of accreditation.

Accreditation and Accountability

Today, there are a number of similarities between accreditation and accountability:

  • Both systems have schools and local education agencies as their primary units of focus;
  • Both require the development and implementation of plans meant to result in improvement;
  • Both put a premium on transparency, accessibility, and use of information and data; and
  • To boost effectiveness, both utilize some level of external monitoring of improvement plan implementation, particularly for those that are in the lowest tier(s) of performance.

For all of their similarities, however, key distinctions remain:

  • In practice, accountability systems frequently put much more significant focus on school improvement than district improvement, often leaving district leaders out of the school improvement process altogether. Accreditation, when done right, treats schools and districts as core components of a system.
  • School improvement team efforts tend to focus their reviews on the data that are used in making accountability determinations, without the benefit of a more comprehensive, objective, causal analysis. This causal analysis, known as diagnostic review, is the centerpiece of the best accreditation practices today.
  • And more recently, accountability system investments have placed a primacy on intervening in the persistently lowest performing schools, whereas a high-quality diagnostic review as part of an accreditation process is a powerful tool when put to regular use in all schools and districts. When used correctly, diagnostic review can highlight problems early and lead to targeted interventions that may prevent the school from ever becoming low-performing.
Accreditation in Practice

AdvancED, the parent organization for multiple regional and international accrediting bodies, accredits over 32,000 schools and districts in 70 countries across the globe. A set of research-based standards, describing the conditions that are necessary for educational institutions to achieve quality student performance and organizational effectiveness, form the foundation of the accreditation process. The standards encompass purpose and direction, governance and leadership, teaching and assessing for learning, resources and support systems, and using results for continuous improvement.  Accompanying indicators and performance levels for each standard describe practices and systematic methods of driving excellence in student performance and organizational effectiveness. The standards are systemic and address major themes across all of them such as continuous improvement, stakeholder involvement, alignment, and equity. No one standard or set of indicators and performance levels is complete without considering all as a collective whole.

As critical as the standards are to determining institutional effectiveness, beginning in 2012 these will no longer be the sole determinant of accreditation status. Student performance data, including (but not limited to) scores on state standardized exams, and stakeholder satisfaction data, based on student, teacher, and parent survey results, also will be taken into account. This more holistic approach helps to further align accreditation with accountability and places an appropriate emphasis on the importance of student outcomes when evaluating institutional quality.

All institutions participating in accreditation through AdvancED engage in the following process:

  • The Context. School and district profiles are prepared by assembling a host of data related to student and teacher demographics, student achievement, instructional and student support programs, and more. The profiles are living documents, serving as the basis for ongoing self-assessment.
  • The Internal Analysis. District and school leaders work together with stakeholders to conduct a self-assessment based on substantive standards. The institution rates its performance on each standard using a set of established rubrics, based on a comprehensive collection, synthesis and analysis of multiple sources of data and best practices, including test scores. Additionally, district and school leaders use diagnostic tools to analyze student performance data and stakeholder perception data. 
  • The External Review. At least once every five years, AdvancED provides a more rigorous and impartial assessment of district and school performance through an external review conducted by professionals from within and outside of the institution’s state. The external review includes school site-visits; classroom observations; an in-depth analysis of evidence and data related to the performance of the institution; and interviews with central office staff, school board members, parents, school administrators and teachers, business leaders, and community members.
  • The Diagnostic Review. Using the results of the review process, district and school leaders work together to discover patterns in their data, refute inaccurate assumptions, and move beyond the obvious to focus on the root causes associated with performance. Through this process, districts and schools gain a better understanding of their current reality so they may confidently build research-based plans that define actions to be implemented for better results in the future.
  • The Continuous Improvement Cycle. Throughout the year, district and school leaders regularly monitor implementation of their improvement strategies, discuss and analyze what is or is not working, and make any necessary adjustments to the improvement plan. They also continuously collect data to inform the ongoing self-assessment.

All institutions will, as always, be directed to implement at least one “Improvement Priority” to support improvement, and all will provide progress reports at various intervals to ensure their commitment to continuous improvement. As a testament to the value that schools and districts see in the accreditation process, a recent survey of AdvancED schools and districts showed that one of the top three reasons they choose to be accredited is the impact the process has on student performance.

Integrating the Best of Both Systems

With millions of dollars invested annually in efforts to improve our education systems, it is a wonder that accreditation, with its long history of making a difference in the quality of teaching and learning, is not front and center in a state’s arsenal of school improvement tools. However, this may be changing. Diagnostic review is included in the key principles of next generation accountability proposed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill passed by the Senate education committee in October 2011. Although there currently exist redundancies in accountability and accreditation systems, these can easily be resolved and eliminated by a thoughtful alignment of the best of both.

In the state of Kentucky, for example, about half of all schools and a quarter of all districts voluntarily participate in the AdvancED accreditation process. In 2011, AdvancED and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) signed a multi-year agreement designed to align the state’s accountability system with AdvancED’s continuous improvement model and to encourage more schools to become accredited. Through the use of a state-of-the-art web-based tool for collecting, analyzing, and reporting relevant data, all Kentucky schools now have access to AdvancED’s accreditation processes, and those who participate in accreditation will meet state reporting requirements without additional paperwork.

In Wyoming, all districts are required by the state to participate in AdvancED’s District Accreditation model and in Michigan, schools accredited by AdvancED also satisfy the state’s requirements for accreditation. In these states, the best practices associated with accreditation are being integrated into the state accountability model, resulting in a system that benefits from the best of both approaches to school improvement.

The Path Forward

Over the past decade, educators have learned many lessons while striving to meet ever more rigorous student achievement goals. The debate over defining the outcomes of a good education is resolving in favor of the need for every student to leave high school prepared for college or career. The Common Core State Standards, recently developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, and already adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, make a strong case for the notion that, in the 21st century, all students must have the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in the global marketplace. This will not happen unless schools make dramatic improvements.

Continuous school improvement requires honest, regular self-assessment and diagnosis, along with thoughtful planning and careful attention to an array of program and legal requirements. Properly conceived and implemented, accreditation should be part of core school improvement activities designed to promote college and career readiness for all students. Armed with knowledge resulting from the diagnostic review, more focused and relevant research-based improvement plans can be developed to address not just the symptoms, but also the causes of underperformance. This information can and should feed seamlessly into existing, or redesigned, accountability systems, thereby strengthening the impact, utility and efficiency of all improvement efforts. This type of coherent approach to continuous improvement, using the best of accreditation and accountability systems, is required if our educational institutions are to make the gains necessary to ensure that all students graduate from high school college- and career-ready.