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State K-12 Accreditation and Accountability Policies

Written by Dr. Zachary J. Miller
Published on January 20, 2023
Research Highlights

‘Accountability’ and ‘accreditation’ refer to distinct systems for ensuring institutional and educational quality in public K-12 schools.

While there are no federal standards for accreditation at K-12 public schools, school accountability is required in all 50 states.

There is no clear evidence for how accreditation and accountability affect student learning outcomes.

See our Science Notes on K-12 public school and charter school accountability for more information.

‘Accountability’ and ‘accreditation’ refer to distinct systems for ensuring institutional and educational quality in K-12 public schools.

Accreditation is not federally mandated and has historically focused on metrics of institutional quality, not learning outcomes specifically. Accreditation certifies that schools meet a minimum level of quality based on criteria from state or external organizations (Rothstein et al. 2009). Accreditation metrics include teacher-to-student ratio, classroom size, staff numbers and qualifications, financial stability, parent engagement, and availability of books and other resources, and may de-emphasize academic performance and assessment data (Oldham 2018). The process and requirements of accreditation vary widely by district and state (Table 1).

  • About 26 states have some type of accreditation system, 20 of which require accreditation for all public K-12 schools (Wixom 2014, Oldham 2018)
  • One-fifth of all K-12 schools in the U.S. are accredited (Rothstein et al. 2009).
  • Some states (e.g., GA) do not require accreditation, but provide incentives like scholarships for students who graduate from accredited schools (GSFC 2023).
  • Students graduating from unaccredited high schools can have limited access to higher education options and financial aid (Rothstein et al. 2009).
  • It is not clear how accreditation systems impact student learning outcomes, if at all.

Accountability is federally mandated and performance-based, and can have over-lapping metrics with accreditation systems. Accountability is a more recent standard for school evaluation, where certain educational and institutional criteria must be met to receive federal funding. Federal accountability standards began in 1965 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act evaluated teachers and schools based on high-stakes student assessments, while the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returned more power to states for monitoring and evaluating student performance. States set their own academic goals, assessments, and improvement plans within federal ESSA requirements, which include a framework for closing the achievement gap between learners (US DOE 2023, ECS 2023).

All 50 states have public school accountability systems in place, as required by federal law. States that do not meet federal accountability standards risk losing federal Title I funding (US DOE 2023).

  • 20 states exceed the basic accountability requirements (ECS 2023).

Accountability systems vary significantly across grade level and state.

  • Common accountability metrics include rates of absenteeism, college readiness, end-of-course assessments, and school safety and climate (ECS 2023).
  • 22 states use college entrance exams for their high school assessment (ECS 2023).

There is little data on how accountability systems affect academic achievement.

See our Science Notes on K-12 public school and charter school accountability for more information.

Table 1. Accreditation details by state. (Data from Wixom 2014, Oldham 2018, & Elgart 2023.)

Accreditation details States
Accreditation via state department of education. AK, AR, CO, KS, LA, MS, MO, MT, NM, NC, OK, SC, SD, VA, WY
States primarily use external organization for accreditation. CT, MI, ID, ND, UT, WY, HI, NV, NH
Existing accreditation programs are rolled into accountability system. MO, CO, IA, KS, MS, NE, NM, TX, VA, WV, WY, AL, FL, KY, ND
Schools can decide to accredit via states or external agencies. NE, WV, SC, NM
Statewide accreditation discontinued. AL, RI, MD, WA
University financial aid and/or enrollment limited to students from accredited high schools. SD, TN, IN, FL, CA, MI, ID


K-12 accreditation is required in Missouri and informs federal accountability determinations.

Missouri requires accreditation for all public schools through the Missouri School Improve-ment Program (MSIP) (MO DESE 2023). The MSIP and results from the Missouri Assessment Program are combined into an Annual Performance Report which is used for federal accountability determinations.

  • The primary metrics are (1) student achievement, (2) subgroup achievement, (3) high school or college/career readiness, (4) attendance rate, and (5) graduation rate (MO DESE 2023).

Although rare, schools can lose their accreditation if they do not have adequate staff, good attendance and graduation rates, etc. (Rothstein et al. 2009). Schools may regain accreditation if they meet state standards. If schools fail to regain full accreditation, they may be dissolved or taken over by the state (MO DESE 2023).

  • Some schools in St. Louis and Kansas City Public School Districts lost accreditation within the last 15 years (MO DESE 2023).
  • Five schools in Missouri are currently provisionally accredited.

Under Missouri statute 160.500, students from unaccredited schools can transfer to accredited schools. The unaccredited school is required to pay for student tuition.


Elgart, M. (2023). The Role of Accountability Systems and Regional Accreditation in Improving K–12 Education. The Role of Accountability Systems and Regional Accreditation in Improving K–12 Education - Cognia 

Education Commission of the States. 50-State Comparison: States’ School Accountability Systems. Accessed on January 16, 2023. 50-State Comparison: States' School Accountability Systems - Education Commission of the States (ecs.org) 

Georgia Student Finance Commission (GSFC). Georgia’s Scholarship, Grant, and Loan Programs. Accessed on January 19, 2023. Georgia’s Scholarship, Grant and Loan Programs | Georgia Student Finance Commission 

Missouri Department of Education and Secondary Education. Accreditation Classification of School Districts. Accessed on January 15, 2023. http://bit.ly/3wjgusH

Missouri Department of Education and Secondary Education. Accountability Data. Accessed on January 15, 2023. Accountability Data | Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (mo.gov) 

Oldham, J. (2018). K-12 Accreditation’s Next Move: A storied guarantee looks to accountability 2.0. Education Next, 18(1), 24-30.  

Rothstein, R., & Jacobsen, R. (2006). The goals of education. Phi delta kappan, 88(4), 264-272. The Goals of Education - Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, 2006 (sagepub.com)

Rothstein, R., Jacobsen, R., & Wilder, T. (2009). From accreditation to accountability. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(9), 624-629. bit.ly/3XJOt9h

United States Department of Education. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Overview. Accessed on January 18, 2023. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) | U.S. Department of Education. 

United States Department of Education. Standards, Assessments, and Accountability. Accessed on January 19, 2023. Standards, Assessment, and Accountability (ed.gov). 

Wixom, M. A. (2014). States Moving from Accreditation to Accountability. Accreditation: State School Accreditation Policies. Education Commission of the States. http://bit.ly/3HjY7di


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