Not all school accreditation agencies are set up to handle the operations of online education providers, but the accelerating growth of virtual schools is prompting many accreditors to adapt to evaluate those types of programs.
“Accreditation is important simply because of a quality-standards issue,” said Butch Gemin, the senior consultant for the Evergreen, Colo.-based Evergreen Education Group, an online-learning research and consulting firm. “Is the school really a high-quality school, or is it not?”
To ensure quality and credibility, as well as the transferability of credits from a virtual school to a traditional brick-and-mortar school or postsecondary institution, seeking accreditation from “a viable and recognized accrediting agency” is an important step for virtual schools and other online programs to take, said Mr. Gemin.
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The process can take up to several years, during which an outside agency will observe and evaluate a school to see if it meets the accreditation agency’s quality standards. Most legitimate virtual schools are accredited by regional accreditation agencies, said Allison Powell, the vice president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va.
Those agencies include the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, the Commission on Secondary Schools of the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges, and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, as well as the North Central Association and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which are operated under the umbrella of Advancing Excellence in Education, or Advanced.
The Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, based in Boise, Idaho, has given its seal of approval to virtual schools and other online programs for over 15 years, said Leonard D. Paul, the associate director of the agency.
All schools—virtual or otherwise—are expected to meet the same core accreditation standards, which include teaching and learning, support, and school improvement standards, he pointed out, but “the indicators that are used to measure success at meeting those standards are developed according to the kind of school program that it is.”
“That way, we’re looking specifically at the needs that online schools have that might bedifferent from a regular, traditional, brick-and-mortar school,” Mr. Paul said.
For instance, an online school does not have to meet the same facilities standards that brick-and-mortar schools do, he said, but those online education programs may need to provide more-extensive technological infrastructure to support instruction and student learning.
The Northwest Association of Accredited Schools also examines how much professional development teachers receive in online teaching, as well as the technical support provided for each teacher and student who takes part in the program, said Mr. Paul.
“We’re looking to make sure that materials are reviewed and evaluated regularly, and that they provide opportunities for advancement of student learning,” he said. “We also look at such things as policies and procedures for transferring credit that students earn from online schools.”
Making sure that credits from a virtual program are accepted by local school districts and are recognized by higher education institutions, for instance, is one concern that accreditation agencies, as well as students and parents, may have. Otherwise, students may not have the option of enrolling in the local district with the credits they’ve received at a virtual school, or they may not be able to go on to postsecondary study once they’ve graduated from the online program.
Another consideration is whether the curriculum provided by the virtual school meets the standards of the states in which the students the school serves live, Mr. Paul said.
“Accreditation ensures that online schools are meeting the same kind of educational standards as any other school in the community,” he said, “so that people see it as a viable way of offering a K-12 education.”
Meeting Online Standards
Claudia Carter, the associate vice president of accreditation for the Alpharetta, Ga.-based Advanced, said that much like the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, her agency expects all virtual programs to meet the same standards as any other school it accredits, but what that looks like may vary for online schools.
“We ask all the schools to have policy and procedures on actual instruction,” she said, such as how often the teacher should contact the student via e-mail or phone, and what to do if the student isn’t logging on often enough. Just as regular schools have procedures to follow if a student doesn’t come to class, virtual schools should have policies regarding how to reach out to students who aren’t spending enough time with their online courses, Ms. Carter said.
Although there is no set time that eachteacher should spend with a student, the school must “allocate and protect instructional time to support student learning” as well as “implement interventions to help students meet expectations for student learning,” according to the Advanced accreditation standards.
In some cases, frequency of contact between teachers and students is easier to evaluate in online courses than in traditional schools, said Ms. Carter, because it is often done through e-mails, Web sites, or online forums, which can provide extensive documentation.
“This is part of quality control,” she said. “What assurances do you have that the school is doing everything they can do to support students so they learn and perform at their highest levels?”
Another consideration for virtual programs is assuring the authenticity of students’ work, Ms. Carter said. Unlike a brick-and-mortar school, where the teacher oversees student test-taking, often virtual schools need to establish an honor code that students agree to adhere to while completing coursework.
But since, almost inevitably, all students won’t adhere to an honor code, some virtual schools are doing more to assure the authenticity of academic work by requiring each student to recruit a proctor—usually an adult other than a legal guardian—to monitor the student’s test-taking, Ms. Carter said.
That person typically is someone within the community, such as a librarian, a guidance counselor at a nearby school, or a member of the clergy, she said.
Other virtual schools are using programs like Skype, a Web-based video communication service, to watch students during tests. And some virtual schools arrange for students to travel to testing sites where exams can be administered.
‘Education of the Future’
The Independent Schools Association of the Central States, or ISACS, has not yet begun accrediting virtual programs, said Kevin Rooney, the coordinator of accreditation services for the Chicago-based agency, although the topic was to be discussed in April at a committee meeting.“Certainly, I think that, looking forward to education of the future, [accrediting virtual schools] is something that all associations ... will have on their agendas,” he said.
Some issues, though, need to be hammered out before an agency can begin granting accreditation to virtual schools, he said. For example, each school accredited by ISACS goes through an extensive self-study process that involves a site visit and subsequent report. Figuring out what that means for virtual schools, which may not have a physical site to visit, will be a major difference to be considered, said Mr. Rooney.
David Glick recently founded a private online school called glbtq Online High School for students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their gender identity or sexuality. Establishing credibility through accreditation was high on the list of priorities from the outset. “For us, accreditation was really critical,” Mr. Glick said.
The school is now an “accreditation candidate” for Advanced, he said, and will be fully approved if it meets all the standards at the end of its two-year candidacy period in January 2012.
Applying for accreditation involves pulling together more than 700 pages of documents that give details of the school’s mission, policies, and procedures, Mr. Glick said.
“You tell [the accreditation agency] what your goals are and how you are achieving those,” he said.
Apex Learning, a Seattle-based online-course provider, runs the Apex Learning Virtual School, which is accredited by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, said Cheryl Vedoe, the company’s chief executive officer.
“We went through the accreditation process because we wanted to ensure that when schools and districts look to Apex Learning as a provider of online courses and delivering instruction to their students, that they can have confidence that we are meeting the standards,” Ms. Vedoe said.
Still, Ms. Vedoe said, accreditation is just one piece to consider when evaluating the quality of an online-learning program.
“There’s still more research and review that anybody looking to seek a solution needs to go through,” she said, “but accreditation is a good first step.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Accreditation Is Seen as High Priority