Fact Check

No, This Illinois High School Isn't Set To Implement Race-Based Grading

This rumor originated with a "local" news website that is part of a so-called "pink slime" news network.

Published Jun 1, 2022

 (OPRF Facebook)
Image Via OPRF Facebook
Claim:
In May 2022, Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) officials in a suburb of Chicago were preparing to implement a race-based grading system.

Fact Check

In May 2022, a website purporting to be a local news site for the western portion of Illinois' Cook County, the state's most populous county that covers the Chicago metro, published an article falsely claiming that Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) officials were set to implement a "race-based grading system." The article alleged that administrators would make it mandatory for "teachers next school year to adjust their classroom grading scales to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students."

Face, Person, Human

The website was called "West Cook News," and the article featured a cropped version of OPRF Administrator Laurie Fiorenza's Twitter profile photo. The contents of the article stemmed from a presentation that she gave during a recent school board meeting (a video of it posted on May 26 and is displayed below). In the presentation, she discussed research around grading students more fairly, known as "equitable grading," and shared findings with school board members for their consideration. Neither she nor any other member of the board announced policy changes that would require teachers to change how they grade students, much less make it mandatory for them to assess students based on their race or ethnicity. For these reasons, we're marking this claim "False."

The school said in a statement published to its website:

The article contains a variety of misleading and inaccurate statements. The article’s mischaracterization of the Board meeting is unfortunate and has caused unnecessary confusion [...] At no time were any statements made recommending that OPRF implement a race-based grading approach.

An Academic Discussion

At the above-mentioned school board meeting, Fiorenza gave a brief presentation about the progress of a board committee that researches professional development strategies for teachers, called the Transformative Education Leadership Team (TELT).

Fiorenza noted that during the school year, teachers had read several books about "equitable grading," or strategies to assess students on a non-biased basis. That said, Fiorenza did not say that teachers were required to implement equitable grading (which is not "race-based grading"). Here's a video of the meeting:

https://youtu.be/h7Hn_YMrmvQ?t=9730

We reached out to Karin Sullivan, the executive director of communications at OPRF, who told us that "there are no changes being proposed. This was a report on the committee’s research of best practices."

What Is Equitable Grading?

The rumor that OPRF was implementing a race-based grading system appeared to largely stem from a misunderstanding of the term "equitable grading." Ralph Matire, secretary of the OPRF School Board, said during the meeting:

OK, equitable grading. People are going to hear that, and they are not going to understand that. So I want to be very clear that equitable grading practice [is] the objective assessment of academic mastery. It is not a dumbing down. It is not making concessions for this, that, or the third thing. It's finding a way to be objective about determining whether a student has mastered the academic content, because too often, subjective evaluation can be off and that's where inequity comes in. So it's getting to an objective measurement of student mastery of academic content. The community needs to hear that. It's an important thing.

Margaret Sullivan, an associate director at EAB, a consulting firm specializing in education institutions, wrote about equitable grading in November 2021:

Course failure rates more than doubled during the pandemic, reducing student confidence in school and their chances of pursuing postsecondary education. But lack of learning isn’t the only driver of course failures. Up to 40% of traditional student grades include non-academic criteria that do not reflect student learning gains — including participation and on-time homework submission. As a result, traditional grading may inadvertently penalize underprivileged students who struggle to meet non-academic expectations.

One of the goals of equable grading is to focus on whether students understand course material, no matter their timeline for doing so, as opposed to testing them for points on specific dates. For example, supporters say, to achieve more equitable grades, teachers should drop zeroes on assignments from grade books when students demonstrate that they know the material from those assignments. During the presentation, Matire talked about how the latter change could give teachers a better assessment of a student's performance, saying:

So, a kid scores zero points on a quiz, then three weeks later demonstrates complete mastery of the material that was in that quiz, why should that zero points hold down that kid's grade when the kid has demonstrated mastery of the academic content? That's what moving to an equitable grading system is. It's understanding that students grow at different paces. And it's teachers interacting with and assessing their students in a manner that allows them to objectively determine that the student has inf act mastered the content.

Karin Sullivan told us that there had been "no school-wide recommendation or implementation" of equitable grading at OPRF, and that this presentation was just a "discussion of research-based best practices." If a teacher does implement equitable grading into their instruction plan, Sullivan said, "any teachers using such practices would have to use them across the board for all students, regardless of race."

Rumors Spread on Social Media

West Cook News' article carried the sensational and false title "OPRF to implement race-based grading system in 2022-23 school year." As noted above, the school simply was not implementing a new grading system, and the grading strategies that officials discussed at a recent school board meeting (equitable grading) had nothing to do with students' race or ethnicity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the inaccuracy of this headline, screenshots of West Cook News' article spread widely on social media. When Libs of Tiktok, a social media account that has gained a massive following thanks to its ability to stir up conservative outrage with claims that are often misleading, false, or stripped of context (no, litter boxes haven't been installed at schools because kids "identify" as cats), spread this rumor, they added screenshots from the presentation that highlighted specific passages:

Flyer, Brochure, Poster

Neither of these highlighted passages stated that OPRF officials were implementing a race-based grading system. What these passages refer to, again, is equitable grading, or an attempt to remove bias from the classroom so that teachers can grade students purely on their mastery of a given subject.

The school explained in their statement:

As part of the Board of Education’s strategic plan, the OPRFHS Grading and Assessment Committee was formed to examine national research on objective, unbiased practices for determining whether students have mastered academic content.

Again, the presentation slides do not state that teachers at OPRF will implement a race-based grading system. Rather, the slides note that teachers had read books about how take non-academic factors (such as attendance) out of the equation could give them a more objective view of a student's mastery of a subject.

Is West Cook News A Local News Outlet?

West Cook News is part of a so-called "pink slime news" network, a network of websites purporting to be local news outlets (despite having few or no local reporters) that publish politically biased content. The website is run by Local Government Information Services (LGIS), which is part of the Metric Media Foundation, a pink slime network that operates more than 1,200 "local news" outlets. A 2019 investigation by the New York Times found that these networks received "at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups."

A disclaimer on the site about its funding read: "Funding for this news site is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government."

While West Cook News presented itself as a local news outlet covering the suburban area west of Chicago, the majority of the stories published by this website were written with an algorithm, according to co-founder Brian Timpone. The Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2018:

Most of the stories published on LGIS news sites are written by algorithm, co-founder Brian Timpone says in an interview with CJR, using software that analyzes data (school test scores, for instance) and splices it by region to deliver to local publications around the state. [...] When stories are written, their authors are usually freelancers, many of whom report their stories from well beyond the Illinois state line.

The story about "race-based grading" carried no author byline. Instead, the article stated it came from the "LGIS News Service."

The Times reported that this network also publishes "pay-for-play" content. Or, in other words, clients can pay to have stories written and published on this network of sites. While reputable news websites would either label this type of content as "paid content" (or, more likely, simply avoid it altogether), these paid advertisements were published by the Metric Media Foundation as if they were regular news stories. The New York Times reported:

Internal documents show how much influence the clients have. "The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites," said one “tool kit” for new writers. "In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy."

Did OPRF Officials Implement, or Announce a Plan To Implement, Race-Based Grading?

No.

This rumor can be traced back to an article published on a pink slime news network in May 2022 that mischaracterized a presentation slide about equitable grading. School officials did not say they were preparing to implement any changes to their grading system, much less adjustments that would force teachers to account for a student's race or ethnicity. Furthermore, any potential future changes to how students are graded would apply to all students, not just students of a specific race.

OPRF said in a statement: "OPRFHS does not, nor has it ever had a plan to, grade any students differently based on race."

We reached out to West Cook News with questions about the article, but did not receive a reply by publication time.

[From the Snopes archives: Did Oregon Officials Say ‘Showing Work’ in Math Class Is White Supremacism?]

Sources:

“Advocacy Groups and Metric Media Collaborate on Local ‘Community News.’” Columbia Journalism Review, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/community-newsmaker-metric-media-local-news.php/. Accessed 1 June 2022.

Alba, Davey, and Jack Nicas. “As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place.” The New York Times, 18 Oct. 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/18/technology/timpone-local-news-metric-media.html.

Editor, Henry Scott |. for and Publisher. “Exploiting the Local News Desert: Are Political and Foreign Interests Profiting from the Locals’ Loss?” Editor and Publisher, https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/exploiting-the-local-news-desert,207894. Accessed 1 June 2022.

“Follow The Money: Right-Wing Funding Of ‘Pink Slime’ Websites Tracked In New Study.” News, 4 Nov. 2021, https://www.wgbh.org/news/commentary/2021/11/03/follow-the-money-right-wing-funding-of-pink-slime-websites-tracked-in-new-study.

Gabbatt, Adam. “The Fake News Sites Pushing Republicans’ Critical Race Theory Scare.” The Guardian, 17 Nov. 2021. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/17/fake-news-sites-republicans-critical-race-theory-scare.

“Hundreds of ‘Pink Slime’ Local News Outlets Are Distributing Algorithmic Stories and Conservative Talking Points.” Columbia Journalism Review, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/hundreds-of-pink-slime-local-news-outlets-are-distributing-algorithmic-stories-conservative-talking-points.php/. Accessed 1 June 2022.

Press, Associated. “Republican Retracts False Claim Schools Placing Litter Boxes for ‘Furry’ Students.” The Guardian, 29 Mar. 2022. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/mar/29/nebraska-lawmaker-litter-boxes-claim-debunked.

Romain, Michael. “Conservative Site Seeking to Fill News Void Invites Suspicion.” Oak Park, 27 Apr. 2021, https://www.oakpark.com/2021/04/27/conservative-site-seeking-to-fill-news-void-invites-suspicion/.

“D97 Updates Board on Racial Equity Analysis Tool.” Oak Park, 20 May 2020, https://www.oakpark.com/2020/05/20/d97-updates-board-on-racial-equity-analysis-tool/.

Statement Regarding Grading Practices. https://www.oprfhs.org/news/1742090/statement-regarding-grading-practices. Accessed 1 June 2022.

“The Metric Media Network Runs More than 1,200 Local News Sites. Here Are Some of the Non-Profits Funding Them.” Columbia Journalism Review, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/metric-media-lobbyists-funding.php/. Accessed 1 June 2022.

Tugade, F. Amanda. “Building out Equity Projects Goal of OPRF’s Equity Chief.” Oak Park, 1 Feb. 2022, https://www.oakpark.com/2022/02/01/building-out-equity-projects-goal-of-oprfs-equity-chief/.

Why Equitable Grading Policies Matter. 15 Nov. 2021, https://eab.com/insights/expert-insight/district-leadership/why-equitable-grading-policies-matter/.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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