As anxiety over the academic performance of public schools grows, experts say it's likely that more schools and school districts will lose public or private accreditation.
"It happens more often than you'd think, but it needs to happen more often than it does," says Mark A. Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancED, a private Atlanta-based accreditation agency that works with about 30,000 schools.
In the past five years, the organization has pulled accreditation on four school systems and a dozen private schools, for reasons ranging from poor academic performance to governance to financial fraud.
"It's become more rigorous," says Terry Holliday, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education. "I think there was a time accreditation just meant you had a certain number of library books and staff." Now, he says, "accreditation does look at outcomes."
Accreditation, sort of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for schools, matters to districts because losing it can lead to a state takeover or an exodus of students. For individual high schools, it can mean that students lose a competitive edge as they apply to college.
After the Missouri State Board of Education last September voted to classify Kansas City Public Schools as "unaccredited," city officials spent weeks telling people what losing accreditation wasn't: Students wouldn't forfeit high school diplomas or transcripts, for one thing. They'd still be eligible for college scholarships — that sort of approval generally comes not from the state but from private organizations like Elgart's.
More than a century old, the private accreditation system grew out of Ivy League colleges' desires to have a uniform way to evaluate whether students coming to them from thousands of high schools could actually handle a high-pressure college workload.