Communities want some sign that their local high school is doing things right.

For years, that has meant accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a private, nonprofit organization that conducts comprehensive school reviews on a 10-year cycle. Its stamp of approval has been used by the vast majority of Maine high schools as evidence to the public and college recruiters that they are providing a quality education.

But residents should not be alarmed if that goes away at their school. The accreditation itself is not all that valuable. Instead, it is the commitment to improvement and accountability that is important, and there are a number of ways a high school can achieve that standard.

The option chosen overwhelmingly in the past has been the accreditation review. In 2009, according to a study by the University of Maine, 102 of the state’s 119 public secondary schools were accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, with another handful pending.

Since then, however, at least 10 schools have left the organization, including Portland and Deering high schools in 2010 and Gardiner Area High School earlier this year. Cony High School in Augusta is the latest to consider ending its membership, with a school board vote likely coming later this month.

The state Department of Education is working on an accreditation process of its own, but a request for proposals for firms willing to formulate one went unanswered earlier this year.

The schools that have left have cited the cost of the accreditation process as the main factor. That is not surprising, as the UMaine study found schools also dropped accreditation in the early 1990s, a time with budget constraints similar to today’s. And now, other options for review exist.

One of those options is the Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit based in Portland, whose review process is preferred by some schools. It also offers membership in the League of Innovative Schools, a regional initiative that offers best practices for school assessment as well as opportunities for its members to share ideas and participate in professional development. The Great Schools review, used by the high schools in Portland and Gardiner, costs less than the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ process, while the League of Innovative Schools’ review is free.

Neither Great Schools nor the league, however, offers accreditation, and that’s a problem for those who think that not having the designation reflects poorly on the school and hurts students in the college application process.

But those concerns have not held up. In an informal survey of New England colleges, the UMaine study found that high school accreditation rarely came into play when reviewing applications. Similar surveys by Portland and Augusta schools reached the same conclusion.

In fact, accreditation has come up most often in Maine in connection with new school construction. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges review focuses heavily on facilities, and can fault a school for having an old building regardless of how well things are going in the classroom. Officials argue that that is unfair because new facilities are usually reliant on state funding and thus out of the control of local schools.

The part of the accreditation process most treasured by administrators and staff is the self-review, which is also offered by the Great Schools Partnership. That gives schools an opportunity to look at their operation from top to bottom, and see what is working and what is not. Outside observers provide a different perspective, and a chance to hear what is being done elsewhere.

The importance of that kind of assessment overrides the need for accreditation at the end of the process. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges review may work for many schools, but the others should look elsewhere if there is a better fit, and the public should look at the results of the reviews themselves, not the designation that may or may not come out of it.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.