A growing number of American families are choosing online and private alternatives to traditional public K-12 education. Accreditation ensures that the elementary and secondary schools they choose offer quality education.
Public schools must adhere to state government criteria. K-12 accreditation serves a similar purpose to state regulations: to ensure that schools meet minimum quality standards for administrative structure and scholastic content.
Accrediting agencies evaluate whether schools can effectively prepare students for the next stage of learning. For high schools, this means producing college-ready graduates.
While K-12 accreditation is not as essential or prominent as college accreditation, it has gradually gained traction — first among high schools, then elementary and middle schools, and most recently, entire school districts.
Today, K-12 schools of all kinds seek accreditation, including cyber charter schools, private educational systems like the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, and online high schools offering career certificates in fields like healthcare, criminal justice, and office management.
The Basics of K-12 Accreditation
The U.S. has no federal laws on accreditation for primary and secondary education as it does for higher education. And the Department of Education (ED) does not recognize any accrediting bodies for private or public elementary and secondary schools.
According to ED, "If an accrediting body that is recognized by the Department for higher education also accredits elementary and secondary schools, the Department's recognition applies only to the agency's accreditation of postsecondary institutions."
Instead, states and regional organizations accredit K-12 schools.
Around 20 states administer accreditation through their departments of education. Some states require accreditation for public schools and state-chartered private schools, while others make school participation voluntary.
Where accreditation is voluntary, the extra step may make accreditation helpful for scholarship eligibility or college admission.
State accreditation is generally based on statistics like test performance and class size. On the other hand, accreditation by regional agencies evaluates schools on a broader array of considerations, like curricula and school facilities.
Seven regional accreditors have historically accredited elementary, middle, and high schools, alongside colleges and universities.
In 2006, the pre-college divisions of two of these accreditors — the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — joined into one primary and secondary accrediting organization known today as Cognia.
AccreditedSchoolsOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
Featured Online Schools
Our partner schools offer programs that help you advance your education while accommodating your schedule. Visit their sites to learn more about degrees, course offerings, start dates, transfer of credits, and more.
Is K-12 School Accreditation Necessary?
Whether accreditation is necessary at the K-12 level depends on the situation.
Accreditation seeks to protect schools, employers, and students. The professional oversight of regular evaluations incentivizes schools to maintain quality standards and alerts administrators to areas for improvement.
Verifying schools' accreditation status can help you avoid attending a scam institution — for-profits that award disreputable diplomas.
That said, accreditation isn't a major talking point for most high-quality K-12 schools. And U.S. colleges accept students from a wide variety of primary and secondary school backgrounds, including homeschooled students.
Without national standards, accreditation isn't a common consideration for the typical U.S. public high school. Fewer than half of U.S. states perform accreditation at this level. Those that do don't always require schools to participate.
Accreditation may be seen as a feather in the cap of public school systems and a stamp of authenticity for private and online schools, showing they've met professional standards.
Both brick-and-mortar Catholic academies and international online programs need to demonstrate merit to potential students and the colleges and employers that will look at their diplomas.
Foreign Students Should Seek Out Accredited Online High Schools
For many immigrants to the U.S., earning a high school diploma is a crucial step toward earning legal status to stay in the country.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, accredited high school diplomas are "valuable assets" in the green card and U.S. visa processes.
Whether before or after making the move to the U.S., nonresident students can earn U.S. high school diplomas through online providers. Verifying the accreditation of online providers can help to ensure that the diploma will be recognized by the government.
Beyond accreditation, schools that serve F-visa and M-visa international students — those looking to attend academic and vocational programs — must hold Student and Exchange Visitor Program certification.
The Importance of Accreditation for Online K-12 Schools
A growing share of students are attending school online during their elementary and secondary school years.
For families facing an array of virtual options — attending the local public school online, enrolling in another free high school program, or paying for a private one — checking school accreditation is one way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
K-12 accreditation is most important when vetting online, for-profit, and newly established schools. Accreditation ensures you're attending a legitimate school that qualifies graduates for college acceptance.