A Brief History of K-12 Accreditation


Published February 15, 2023 · 5 Min Read

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Accredited schools follow standards set by independent accreditors. Learn about the history of K-12 accreditation, how accreditation works, and whether accreditation matters.

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Accredited schools meet standards set by independent accrediting agencies. But we usually think of accreditation in the context of college. How did elementary school, middle school, and high school accreditation start? Does K-12 accreditation even matter?

Funnily enough, the history of K-12 accreditation actually began at a college. In the 1870s, the president of the University of Michigan suggested evaluating high schools to recognize schools that effectively prepared graduates for higher education.

In the decades that followed, regional accrediting agencies formed to grant high school accreditation. Soon, those accrediting bodies expanded to elementary and middle schools.

By the mid-20th century, accrediting bodies were evaluating private K-12 schools. And some states joined the accreditation process for public schools.

Today, K-12 accreditation plays an important role in educational quality — but it's a complicated process. Looking back at how accreditation evolved can help explain the current system.

What Is K-12 Accreditation?

Accreditation recognizes schools that meet high standards for educating students.

At the K-12 level, independent accrediting agencies evaluate elementary, middle, and high schools to award accreditation. Colleges and universities undergo a similar process to receive accreditation.

That said, K-12 accreditation is more complicated than higher education accreditation. That's because overlapping agencies evaluate schools based on their location, mission, and state regulations.

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How Does Public vs. Private School Accreditation Work?

At the elementary and secondary levels, accreditation is decentralized.

What does this mean exactly? Rather than following national accreditation standards, states set their own accreditation policies. Some states do not require accreditation, whereas others accredit public schools. As a result, K-12 accreditation varies greatly by location.

But even in states that require public schools to hold accreditation, the process varies by location. Colorado and Virginia, for example, grant accreditation to public school districts in the state.

Meanwhile, Kentucky and Idaho partner with accrediting agencies to conduct regular reviews.

In other states, accreditation remains voluntary for public schools.

Some states, such as Michigan, Indiana, and Tennessee, incentivize attending an accredited school by limiting state scholarships to graduates of accredited public high schools.

Private schools can seek accreditation through regional, national, and international accrediting organizations.

These accrediting agencies evolved over time. Some specialize in a particular method of education, such as Montessori or Waldorf, while others accredit private religious schools.

Did You Know...

Today, around 20 states require public schools to hold accreditation.

What Is Regional High School Accreditation?

The first accrediting agencies for K-12 schools date back to the 19th century. Rather than evaluating all K-12 schools, these accrediting bodies focused on secondary schools and college readiness.

At that time, public schools typically ended at eighth grade. As late as 1910, only 14% of Americans had a high school diploma. Only a small fraction of college-bound students attended high school, often offered through a preparatory academy.

Colleges were largely responsible for evaluating and even running preparatory programs.

Then, in 1871, University of Michigan President Henry Frieze suggested certifying Michigan high schools that met the university's admission requirements.

The practice quickly spread to other states. Colleges joined together to create accrediting bodies for their regions. Graduates of accredited high schools qualified for college admission, encouraging states to invest in public high schools.

The same regional accrediting agencies that accredit colleges today specialized in high school accreditation in the past.

By the middle of the 20th century, these regional accrediting bodies had also established commissions to accredit elementary schools.

National and International Accreditation

The process of K-12 accreditation began with colleges but evolved into a complex system of overlapping accrediting agencies.

Over time, national and international accrediting agencies also began evaluating K-12 schools.

These accrediting agencies often focused on a particular type of K-12 school, including religious schools and specialized private schools.

National accreditors coordinated to set accreditation standards. The National Council for Private School Accreditation (NCPSA), which was founded in 1993, brought together over a dozen K-12 accrediting agencies that focused on private school education.

NCPSA describes itself as an "accrediting association of private school accrediting agencies."

Regional accrediting organizations also expanded their reach. The Midwestern, Southern, and Northwest school accrediting agencies partnered to create AdvancED in the early 2000s. In 2019, AdvancED changed its name to Cognia.

Currently, the four regional accrediting agencies are:

Many of these agencies operate nationally rather than solely within their regions.

K-12 vs. College Accreditation: How Do They Differ?

There are key differences between how accreditation works at the K-12 level and the postsecondary level.

College accreditation plays a major role in a student's education. For example, only students attending accredited schools can receive federal financial aid such as the Pell Grant.

Additionally, credits earned at an accredited college will more likely transfer to other schools. And many professions restrict licensure to candidates who earned a degree from an accredited college or university.

K-12 accreditation operates differently. In some states, attending an unaccredited high school can limit your college prospects. The University of California system, for instance, requires you to have a diploma from an accredited high school.

In other states, however, a school's accreditation status may not impact students at all.

Elementary and secondary schools pursue accreditation from a mix of private accrediting agencies, state departments of education, and regional accrediting agencies.

In states that do not require accreditation, schools instead focus on approval from the state's department of education. As a result, the importance of accreditation depends on your location.

Did You Know...

You can only qualify for federal financial aid if your college or university is accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

How K-12 Accreditation Works Today

How does K-12 accreditation work? As with higher education accreditation, accrediting agencies evaluate schools based on self-assessments, data analysis, and site visits.

To receive accreditation, elementary and secondary schools must meet the accrediting agency's standards.

Accrediting agencies publish lists of accredited schools. For example, the NCPSA Directory of Accredited Schools lists schools accredited by any NCPSA member organization.

These accreditors also provide information on their standards, evaluation methods, and schedules. Accredited schools undergo regular reviews to maintain their status.

But does K-12 accreditation matter? The answer depends on the school and state. In some states, you must attend an accredited school to qualify for state-funded college scholarships.

In other states, approval from the state's department of education matters far more than a school's accreditation status.

Learn More About Accreditation

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