Once every 10 years, each of 99 Utah high schools is thoroughly reviewed to determine if it meets accreditation criteria of the Northwest Association of Schools. That's about 10 a year.
In the years between reviews, each school must report to the State Office of Education regarding progress toward meeting any standards on which it may have fallen short.In Utah, every high school but Ticaboo undergoes the evaluation process.
"The value of accreditation is to let the public, staff and parents know that this school meets accepted standards. It is proof that the school provides a safe and effective learning environment for children," said Joyce Hansen, director of Utah's program.
About 70 percent of the institutions of higher education in the United States make attendance at an accredited high school a prerequisite for enrollment.
The Northwest Association, which also accredits Utah's colleges and universities, is one of six associations across the country that set standards for all levels of education. It sets criteria and provides oversight for schools in Utah, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Although each accrediting association sets its own criteria and process for accreditation, the standards tend to be very similar, Hansen said.
In Utah, only a handful of elementary schools are accredited by the regional association. "Four of five elementary schools are not accredited by anyone," Hansen said, although the state has oversight for elementary schools.
More Utah high schools have been "advised" of shortfalls in meeting standards in recent years, Hansen said, the majority because of deficits in library/media services or counseling staffs. Many Utah schools have much higher ratios of students to professionals in these two areas than the association requires.
Twelve schools were "advised" in 1989 and more than 20 in 1990, she said. Schools are allowed several years to remedy deficiencies before the process moves to "warned." Failure to rectify problems can lead to removal of the association's stamp of approval, but "no Utah schools have been dropped in the time I've been involved," Hansen said.
The State Office of Education has recognized the funding problems that have created substandard library/media centers in many Utah schools and hopes to get more money from the state to spur improvement.
Small rural schools tend to have more problems meeting accreditation standards regarding certified staffing than larger schools, she said.
One of the greatest benefits of the accreditation process is the self-evaluation that occurs before reviewers visit a school, she said. The introspection identifies, from the viewpoint of the school itself, strengths and weaknesses that a visit from reviewers almost always validates.
The association doesn't expect miracles, Hansen said. Utah's unique statistics, with large numbers of children to educate in relation to its taxing ability, generate some real challenges to the state's secondary schools to meet the regional standards for class ratios, supplies and equipment. The association recognizes effort and takes "givens" into account.