The word accreditation is derived from the Latin credito (trust). Its application to American schools dates from 1871, when, on the basis of on-site visits by representatives of its faculty, the University of Michigan began "accrediting" secondary schools entrusted with providing adequate preparation for university studies. The practice was soon taken up by universities in nearby states, and in 1884 was adopted by the University of California. In 1899, graduates of 187 high schools in fifteen different states were eligible, by diploma alone, for admission to the University of Michigan.
A Community of Trust
Between 1895 and 1917, American colleges and secondary schools came together in five (later six) regional associations for consensus-building discussions about the developing system of American education. The movement of students from school to school, school to college, and college to college was on the agenda, along with other transactions that depended upon trust among institutions. The regional associations sought a voluntary method for identifying institutions capable of their objectives and worthy of trust, and accreditation became the preferred name of this process.
The diversity of sponsorship and purpose among educational institutions prohibited equating accreditation with advocacy. The regional associations simply wanted to establish that accredited institutions were what they said they were, had what they said they had, and did what they said they did in accordance with standards approved by the American academic community. Anything an accredited institution might say about its staff, facilities, curricula, services, or the accomplishments of its students was presumed to be true. Credibility was therefore essential for successful participation in the free American system. Institutions unwilling or unable to establish credibility through accreditation had to use some other means - none could prosper without it.
Regional School Accrediting Commissions
School accreditation moved from the West and South toward the Northeast. The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) was founded in 1895 by educational leaders already involved in school accreditation. In 1904, NCA published a list of accredited schools. Also founded in 1895, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) established a commission for secondary school accreditation in 1912. The Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges (NASC) began accrediting colleges and schools in 1917, the year it was founded. It formed a secondary school commission in 1927.
Established in 1887, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA) was initially preoccupied with its successful effort to establish the College Entrance Examination Board. Consequently, MSA did not form a Commission on Secondary Schools until 1922. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which dates from 1885, began accreditation of private secondary schools in 1927, and later public secondary school accreditation moved under the control of the Association. In 1962, California and Hawaii separated from the Northwest Association to form the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and an accrediting commission for secondary schools.
After the middle of the twentieth century, all regional associations extended accreditation to other kinds and levels of schools. Commissions for elementary schools were established by the Southern Association in 1953, by the Middle States Association in 1978, and by the New England Association in 1987. After 1960, the original commissions for secondary schools of the other three associations were renamed Commissions on Schools, and they extended their missions to include the accreditation of elementary schools. In 1968, The New England Association had begun a commission on vocational and technical education, so by 1990 the American school accreditation establishment included a total of eleven regional commissions.
The Eight-Year Study
In 1932 the young and developing secondary school commissions of the (then) five regional associations implemented a nationwide eight-year study aimed at establishing standards for secondary school accreditation. The study culminated in 1940 with publication of the Secondary School Evaluative Criteria, in which hundreds of the parts of a secondary school were organized and listed, each to be evaluated separately against the backdrop of a community study and the school's philosophy. The intense rigor of the listing commanded wide respect. It appealed to the prevailing mind-set of the industrial age and encouraged the growth and embellishment of the apparatus of secondary education. Even its few critics agreed that the instrument (as it was often called) offered a useful indication of the effort a community was making.
After 1940 the study was incorporated and lived on as the National Study of School Evaluation (NSSE). Governed by the accrediting school commissions, NSSE revised the Criteria every ten years and published other support materials. Despite the growing diversity of accredited schools, the dominance of the Criteria was not challenged until 1980 when a new generation of leaders, influenced by postindustrial models of thought, insisted school evaluations should center on the processes by which the resources given to a school were transformed into desired results.
From Parts to Processes
Moving from disembodied parts to (results-oriented) processes proved to be more than just a bend in the road; it was an entirely different road. Parts no longer had relevance apart from processes, and processes drew relevance only from results. This conversion entailed retraining thousands of schools, commissioners, and evaluators. NSSE and the commissions published new support materials on topics such as strategic planning, cyclical improvement, paradigmatic alignment, energy auditing, impact analysis, critical description, scenario analysis, and synergy development. Some commissions evaluated schools more frequently, using fewer evaluators, and the periodic reports required of accredited schools became action-based, focusing on their movement toward goals that can be empirically defined and verified.
Accreditation standards were also revised. With total acceptance of the ubiquity of change, the commissions reasoned that status quo was incompatible with merit. Accordingly, schools were to be judged on the quality of their movement towards desired goals, and not of their current standing. Standards for accreditation became measures of school improvement activity. Regardless of prior accomplishments, schools had to demonstrate continuous improvement for continuous accreditation. In 1990 the sixth and last edition of the Criteria was published. By 1997 all commissions were using process-oriented protocols, and the methods for school accreditation that had prevailed from 1940 had expired.
National and International Activity
As transportation improved, educators moved most of their deliberations from regional to national venues. Only accreditation, which had prospered from regional governance, continued to be regional. The regional commissions became the sole custodians of its meaning and traditions. They remained connected by their responsibility for NSSE; and, from 1968, they met annually for an exchange of information as part of the Council of Regional School Accrediting Commissions (CORSAC). There was no interest in establishing a national school accreditation authority.
However, American families were becoming increasingly mobile, and the public media were becoming nationally focused. After 1950 some commissions began serving American schools overseas, but efforts to establish regional jurisdictions abroad proved acrimonious. New national educational corporations with schools spread across all regions objected to dealing with different accreditation authorities. So the regional commissions began seeking ways to provide national and international services while preserving the independence they all cherished.
In 1994 the commissions established a "legal platform" for combined activities by replacing CORSAC with a corporation named the International Council of School Accreditation Commissions, Inc. (ICSAC). The first project on this "platform" was conversion of the International Registry of Accredited Schools into a searchable database that was available online. The second was the establishment of a quadrennial international convocation, with the recurring theme of Peace and Justice through Education (Atlanta, 1996 and Chicago, 2000). The third was an umbrella accreditation authority, (CITA).
The flexibility of process protocols and school improvement standards presented the possibility that school improvement programs and accreditation could be synchronous. After 1985 some system wide improvement programs for public and Catholic diocesan schools were redesigned as accreditation protocols. Similar collaborations developed between the regional commissions and organizations of special purpose and method schools (e.g., Christian, hearing impaired, Montessori) that enhanced the special rigors of these organizations and schools by offering special accreditation.
To avoid forcing these schools to choose one or the other accreditation (or do both), the commissions exercised their flexibility in designing protocols leading to both regional and special accreditation. In 1993, thirteen of these organizations came together as the National Council for Private School Accreditation (NCPSA), which soon established a working relationship with the Regionals. In 1999, the Regionals and NCPSA jointly began the International Academy of Educational Accreditors (IAEA), an agency designed to assist other nations to establish accreditation systems.
These cooperative undertakings were fruits of the century-long growth of school accreditation, and of perceptions of its modern potential. It began with secondary schools only and spread to schools of all kinds and levels. At a critical point it moved from assessing effort to examining processes aimed at results. It originated within separate commissions that later acquired the means and determination to combine for national and international endeavors. Positive relations with special accrediting organizations broadened its foundations including organizations like the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and the Council on International Schools (CIS). By 2001 its voluntary, peer-governed, internally driven, and externally monitored methods were spreading abroad, and its regional commissions were equipped to combine with others as needed.
Today in 2011, the efforts of Regional accreditation are furthered through the establishment of the International Alliance of Regional Accreditors consisting of the Regionals - (NEASC) New England Association of Schools and Colleges, (MSA-CESS) Middle States Association - Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools, (NWAC) Northwest Accreditation Commission, (WASC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and the (CIS) Council on International Schools, (NAIS) National Association of Independent Schools, and (NCPSA) National Council for Private School Accreditation. Together these organizations continue to advocate the traditional, peer driven, time tested and internationally researched approach to accreditation.
Thank you to Dr. John Stoops, Dr. Stephen Baker, Dr. David Steadman, Dr. Don Petry, and others for their contributions to this historical piece, as cited, in part, at Answers.com.