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Demystifying Accreditation and Accountability

February 15, 2024 3 min read
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Accreditation and accountability are two distinct processes with different goals, yet the distinction between them is sometimes lost among educators. Accountability systems in most states capture a moment in time for student achievement, graduation rates, career readiness, and other factors. They were not designed to identify the root causes for performance or explain why results are what they are. While these data can be used to display a history of performance, it is not forward-looking to consider what factors are impacting student success or how to drive improvement.

Accreditation, on the other hand, 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. It provides a deep view into the vital systems of a school: the effectiveness of instruction, availability and strength of student support, leadership, financial management, and the use of data in decision-making.

Complementary systems

While their intentions are unique, these two systems are, in fact, complementary. Together, accountability systems and regional accreditation information can be used to drive improvement for students by better-informing accountability and supporting schools.

Incorporating a regional accreditation process, within a continuous improvement framework, picks up where accountability leaves off. The process is most impactful when it is optional, conducted by peers, and done over time. It uncovers details about how well a school is performing, where it falls short, and what it can do to be even more successful. The process encourages the spread of research-based and student-centric practices that can help raise student and school performance, encourage innovation, and continually enhance the capacity of the system to serve young people.

Accreditation drives continuous improvement

With a focus on continuous improvement, an independent standards-based accreditation review process looks at accountability data and performance and challenges institutions to take actions to foster ongoing improvement in areas research says impact learning. This process, with authentic engagement, looks behind the numbers and deeper into school quality factors like culture, learning environments, student engagement, leadership capacity for sustaining improvements, the use of technology, and more. Unlike compliance measures, 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. Accountability factors incorporated into a true system of continuous improvement guide improvement and establish a pathway forward.

Various actions for strategic thinking and improvement planning process cycle

State accountability systems and the voluntary system of regional K–12 accreditation typically operate separately to achieve different purposes using different types of data. However, each activity offers information and insight that can work together to enhance school, district, and state improvement efforts—while maintaining their unique purposes and characteristics.

To learn more about how accountability systems and the accreditation process improve the quality of K-12 education, read this insightful white paper by Dr. Mark A. Elgart, Cognia president and CEO.

About Cognia

Cognia® is a global, nonprofit improvement organization dedicated to helping institutions and other education providers grow learners, teachers, and leaders. Cognia offers accreditation and certification, assessment, and improvement services within a framework of continuous improvement. Serving 40,000 public and private institutions from early learning through high school in more than 90 countries, Cognia brings a global perspective to advancing teaching and learning. Find out more at

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