November 2015
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Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA and Deanna Wormuth, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA

Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas

Deanna Wormuth

Since 1999, the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) has been the primary organization verifying postsecondary, nondegree-granting language programs’ “quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services” (U.S. Department of Education, 2008, para.1) in 12 standard areas:

  1. Mission
  2. Curriculum
  3. Faculty
  4. Facilities, Equipment, and Supplies
  5. Administrative/Fiscal Capacity
  6. Student Services
  7. Recruiting
  8. Length and Structure of Program
  9. Student Achievement
  10. Student Complaints
  11. Program Development
  12. Finance (CEA, 2015)

Language programs seeking accreditation must demonstrate that they meet all subcriteria for each standard. If programs prove the quality of their education and services, they can obtain accreditation up to 10 years. Evaluating themselves against the standards, institutions can objectively review their program, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and raise awareness among faculty and staff about factors contributing to reputable, high quality programs. The process promotes ongoing self-assessment and excellence for all stakeholders (Shawer, 2013).

Our program underwent two accreditation processes: in 1999, receiving 5-year accreditation, and in 2004, receiving 10-year accreditation. Prior experience did not mean that (re)accreditation was less daunting. Although the goal was the same in 2014 as in 1999 and 2004—to verify that the program meets the needs of students and to emphasize program outcomes and accountability (Bucalos, 2014)—the 2014 process was different.

In 1999 and 2004, CEA required a paper/printed self-study report and accompanying hard-copy evidence. Meeting the original 52 individual standards in 11 major standards areas was demonstrated in narratives, sometimes yielding indirect answers. In 2010, CEA revised the standards, creating 12 areas with 44 individual standards, and shifted to an all-electronic report with hyperlinked evidence. The 44 standards are now addressed by answering specific questions and providing explicit data and evidence.


The process for our 2014 reaccreditation began in late 2012, two years before the reaccreditation decision. A strict timeline ensured that sufficient time was allocated to preparing the self-study and making appropriate programmatic modifications (see Table 1).

Table 1. 2014 reaccreditation timeline




Oct 2012

Attend workshop required by CEA

Program Director (PD), Self-Study Coordinator (SSC)

Jan–May 2013

Respond to standards questions, compile evidence documents

Faculty teams

Mar 2013

Attend workshop for CEA reviewers


May–Aug 2013

Edit team report sections, gather remaining evidence


Aug–Dec 2013

Update, organize evidence; fine-tune self-study report; create hyperlinks


Jan 2014

Write overview, strengths/weaknesses sections; review final report


Feb 2014

Submit self-study report


Jun 2014

Experience site visit


Jul–Aug 2014

Receive and respond to CEA report


Dec 2014

Learn about CEA’s decision

PD, all personnel

Self-Study Teams

Before our reaccreditation journey, the program director (PD) designated the self-study coordinator (SSC), who would plan, organize, and oversee the self-study process. This person should possess superior organization skills to ensure timely drafting and completion of the self-study report; excellent writing/editing skills to revise report sections; and strong interpersonal skills to delegate team tasks, follow up with team members, and impose deadlines for completing report drafts. The SSC was given release time in summer and fall 2013.

The PD and SSC assigned faculty to cooperative teams responsible for drafting self-study report sections. Teams were formed based on their ability to address assigned standards and to work effectively together. Because work on responses to CEA standards is time consuming and requires research of information and evidence, faculty needed to see the significant benefits that the self-study process would bring to our program in order not to view team assignments as an extra administrative burden. To obtain faculty buy-in, CEA review benefits were discussed in lunch meetings. Faculty teams also had adequate time to complete tasks, and programmatic professional development sessions were dedicated to discussing the self-study process. The meetings and sessions increased awareness of the CEA standards and their role in our program and presented opportunities for faculty members to provide input. “Faculty morale improves when they feel that they have directly contributed to a successful effort in which they have ownership” (Bucalos, 2014, p. 5).

Self-Study Report and Evidence

In the self-study report, the program responds to specific questions to demonstrate compliance with CEA standards. Compiling and organizing the parts of the self-study report is labor-intensive. In addition to the program overview and self-identified strengths/weaknesses, the bulk of the self-study report consists of responses to standards-related questions. For each standard, three parts are obligatory:

Part A: Required responses to specific questions and templates (e.g., yes/no questions, checklists, tables/charts, short responses).

Part B: Verification: a list of hyperlinked evidence documents supporting the responses, or, in other words, files that show compliance with the standard. (To facilitate reviewers’ task of reading the report and determining if we had provided appropriate evidence for meeting a standard, the SSC included hyperlinks to evidence documents not only in the list in Part B, but also within the responses in Part A.)

Part C: The program’s self-recommendations for improving perceived weaknesses in meeting a standard and time frame to demonstrate improvement.

Relevant evidence documents needed to be collected for each standard (e.g., faculty meeting minutes, course descriptions, student performance data); some existing documents required updating and revising to reflect the most recent versions (e.g., Policies & Procedures, Curriculum Guide, Faculty Handbook, program brochure, website); a comprehensive Staff Handbook was created.

Site Visit, Review Team’s Report, and Response

The site visit occurs over 3 days, but preparations require advance planning for the visit to unfold smoothly. Once our site visit date had been coordinated with CEA, we negotiated a workable agenda for the review team to complete verification of information provided in our self-study. This task involved determining time slots for meetings with relevant personnel, faculty, and students; planning which classes would be observed; and making available documents not accessible electronically (e.g., complete faculty CVs, merit reports, student files). Site visit preparation involves arranging hotel accommodations for the review team and providing community information. A special room, serving as the review team’s work area, was reserved in our building, providing easy access to program facilities, and set up according to CEA’s and the review team’s specifications. We prepared the room with hard copies of documents, a computer with access to shared-drive program information, and printer and office equipment.

Faculty, staff, and students also had to be readied for the visit. The PD established expectations for the event, identified faculty teaching different skills/levels for the required classroom visits, and reviewed what to expect in the interview with the review team. Similarly, the students were informed of the site visit and general purpose by their instructors, who identified students for interviews with the review team.

Once the review team arrived, the site visit progressed according to the set agenda. While the presence of the team invariably causes heightened awareness and nervousness, the majority of faculty members had limited interaction with the team, which was focused on verifying information and collecting data. In the exit meeting, attended by the review team members, the PD, and the SSC, the review team outlined general strengths and broad areas of concern. We then waited 1 month to receive the team’s report, to which we needed to respond within 30 days.

When submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal, one should not expect outright acceptance without addressing points identified by peer reviewers, and, similarly, programs undergoing CEA accreditation should not expect to be perceived as flawless, despite prior accreditation. The purpose of the accreditation process is to analyze program procedures and identify areas in which the program could be stronger. The review team helps a program identify those areas, too. Upon receiving the team’s report, the PD and SSC reviewed it carefully, noting strengths and weaknesses found, and then they judiciously prepared the response, providing additional evidence and proposing a reasonable timeline for compliance with the issues.


When the accreditation process is forthcoming, it seems overwhelming. It is difficult to imagine that it takes 2 years to be (re)accredited as a quality language program. However, the self-study process has significant value beyond the stamp of approval from the Department of Education. The introspective review process was “an effective professional development strategy that provide[d] program administration, staff and faculty members with…opportunities to develop their professional skills” (Shawer, 2013, p. 2883).

Faculty and staff members developed greater understanding of accountability for program procedures, heightened their awareness of maintaining standards expectations and resultant high standards of teaching, and realized that even in a good program, there is always room for improvement. Our students learned that, in the United States, a high value is placed on program quality. Through their ability to voice their opinions, students developed a sense of ownership and pride in being part of an excellent program. The CEA (re)accreditation process has helped us continue on this path.


Bucalos, A. (2014). Including faculty in accreditation preparation: Boon or bane? Assessment Update, 26(1), 5–6.

Commission on English Language Program Accreditation. (2015). Standards. Retrieved from

Shawer, S. (2013). Accreditation and standards-driven program evaluation: Implications for program quality assurance and stakeholder professional development. Quality & Quantity, 47(5), 2883–2913.

U.S. Department of Education. (2008). Accreditation and quality assurance. Retrieved from

Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas received her MAT and PhD degrees in applied linguistics from Georgetown University. She has taught ESL, linguistics, and teacher training courses, and she is currently teaching in the Intensive English Program at Georgetown University; she has also served as a site reviewer for CEA. She regularly presents at TESOL conferences; she has published articles on email communication, and she is the coauthor of Next Generation Grammar 4.

Deanna Wormuth is director of the Center for Language Education and Development and English as a Foreign Language at Georgetown University. She has extensive experience as a program administrator and has served as a CEA commissioner and site reviewer. She has also served as advocacy chair and president of University and College Intensive English Programs (UCIEP).

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