How to separate the sheep from the goats, the authorised from the bogus. Beware the alphabet soup of lookalike initials and reversed titles: all accrediting agencies are not equal.
Accreditation of American Schools (in the US and Abroad)
Why does it matter whether a school is accredited or not, as long as it has a lively principal, great teachers and good exam results?
Accreditation matters because a thorough accreditation process vets a school in ways parents usually cannot, even if they currently have children in the school. That process, among other things, forces a school to pull up its socks and closely examine its own standards and plans.
It allows an independent body to look behind the scenes for appropriate governance and clean bookkeeping, encourages transparency, and measures the amount of input “stakeholders” (parents) have on financial planning – all of which is particularly important in international schools, when many are privately owned and, according to the laws of the land, it is quite legal for an owner to do whatever he wants with the school funds (including buy himself a new boat).
Accreditation also matters because without it, high school diplomas are not usually accepted by colleges and universities and college credits cannot be transferred; nor are degrees accepted for graduate schools. (Having firmly stated that admonition, we now must admit that occasionally universities will overlook a questionable or non-existent accreditation problem if the student is enormously exceptional (child prodigy violinist, has already won Wimbleton at age 14 etc), but mere mortals do need to come from a school with known academic qualifications (all you have to do is look at the numbers....there are way too many applications for the overworked admissions office to check every unknown/dubious school and agency.)
The real question for a school without any accredition is, "Why not?" A good school, with most of its ducks in a row and stable finances, has nothing to fear from this useful, arms-length process, and everything to gain. Do be wary of schools that do not bother, and don't hesitate to ask pointed questions.
Which are real and which are dodgy?
Although the website of the US Dept of Education states that they do not have the authority to recognise any agencies, they then blithely refer to certain ones as nationally recognised agencies, and they do officially recognise the authority of these agencies to accredit post secondary schools (colleges and universities).
Do not let this confuse you. These are the agencies the USDOE recognises in all but statute, and they do subject primary and secondary schools to a vigorous and thorough accreditation process.
Therefore, there are six accrediting agencies "recognised" by the US Secretary of Education. Each region in the United States has an acronym that ends in ACS or ASC under the Commission on Colleges (COC) [NB "colleges" in the US means post-secondary level schools, synonomous with the generic British "university"]. However, that having been said, MSACS (see below) is usually known as MSA (Middle States Association).
These accreditation bodies are strict and complete. Repeat: without an accreditation from one of them, high school diplomas are not accepted by most colleges and universities and college credits cannot be transferred; nor are degrees accepted for graduate schools.
Cognia (formerly AdvanceED and before that, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSACS)[but usually known as MSA]
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) (also known as AdvandedEd)
Private (or independent) schools (in the US and abroad) may also be accredited by other agencies, most of whom should be members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), or European Council of Independent Schools (ECIS) (notably their accredtation arm, Council of Independent Schools (CIS)) and which may include regional organisations specifically set up to accredit independent schools (an example would be the Florida Council of Independent Schools (FCIS)). A school accredited by one of those organisations AND one of the six regional agencies even gives an extra layer of assurance.
However, there are private schools, both secondary and post secondary, that do not pass the rigorous standards of any NAIS-recognised accrediting organisations, or the official six regional agencies, yet might claim accreditation by a reassuring alphabet soup of initials that sound confusingly close to, but should not be confused with, the ones mentioned here by name.
To check for legitimacy amongst regional or state accrediting associations, go to the membership organisations National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which require accreditation by one of the agencies they recognise and which you can definitely trust.
If a school is not accredited by one of the organisations recognised by any of the above agencies, do not hesitate to ask why. It is expensive to have a proper and comprehensive accreditation or inspection, requiring a team of people doing a great deal of work over several days. But if a school can't afford this very important item in their budget, it should raise serious questions as to what else they can't or won't afford...and even how much longer they'll be in business, quite aside from the obvious lack of transparency and indication of quality education.
For a list of agencies recognised by the US Department of Education (we apologise in advance for the glacial pace of their website; go fix a sandwich while you wait) go to www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg7.html or the densely typed, all but unintelligible www.ifap.ed.gov/aagencies/doc0022_bodyoftext.htm (this is the official list the Secretary of Education is required by statute to publish). There used to be even more interesting lists of agencies NOT recognised by the USDOE, but they are now either gone or very hard to find (the result of a bit of litigeous discipline, undoubtedly).
So without giving you lists of examples, beware of infinitesimal but crucial differences in wording and initials between the accepted and the rejected. We do trust the above referenced lists, and if an agency is not on it, it would be a good idea to do more research (feel free to contact us; we do occasionally discover and add agencies).
[NB We have a poor opinion of the US Department of Education's websites, but recently, they have improved their game enough to now have an uncharacteristically direct and easily accessible section on "diploma mills" and "fake agencies". Throughout that section and many of the links, they do not mince words about the dangers of these agencies and schools, and provide resources for you to check. Their lists aren't perfect (and tend to lean towards information on postsecondary), but as we find them, we will publish them.]
As mentioned, schools in foreign countries are eligible to seek accreditation through one of the six regional agencies; if a school purports to be an American international school, it should most definitely be accredited by one of the regional agencies, although a school may be additionally accredited or inspected by other legitimate agencies or organizations such as the IBO or CIS. As stated above, membership in some organizations (like the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) or the European Council of International Schools (ECIS) ) is only possible if the school is accredited by an approved accrediting agency...another good clue for inquiring minds.
If you just can't get enough of this subject, go to the section of the excellent NAIS site that addresses accreditation. If nothing else, it will be a treat after some of these other websites. Unlike the US Department of Education, NAIS does not pussyfoot around.