“Equitable grading practices: People are going to hear that and not understand it.”

That’s the conclusion school board member Ralph Martire reached at the May 26 meeting after Laurie Fiorenza, an administrator at Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, gave an update on teachers’ approaches to grading

An assistant superintendent for student learning, Fiorenza briefly led a presentation on the ongoing work of a team of administrators and teachers, who among other issues, are examining equitable grading practices. The teachers’ methods of grading – which include scoring Fs no lower than 50% instead of a zero to using a competency-based system to measure students’ skills – were folded into a larger discussion about the district’s efforts to offer more professional support and collaboration opportunities to teachers this year.  

“It’s finding a way to be objective about determining whether a student has mastered the academic content,” said Martire, the board secretary, about the equitable grading practices. “The community needs to hear that. It’s an important thing.” He added grading practices are not about “dumbing down” the course expectations or “making concessions.”

But Martire was right, and his comments foreshadowed what came next.

Four days after the meeting, West Cook News, a conservative news site, published a story about Fiorenza’s brief presentation, spreading false information about the high school’s grading practices. The story – which went viral on social media – claimed the school will move toward a “race-based grading system” next year and require teachers to curb their grading as part of a larger plan to “equalize test scores among racial groups.” 

“Oak Park and River Forest High School administrators will require teachers next year to adjust their classroom grading scales to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students,” the West Cook News lede read.

The article noted that teachers would “exclude” variables in their grading assessments that are said to “disproportionately hurt the grades of Black students.” Black students would also “no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan,” the story also reported. 

That plan and the details released in the West Cook News story did not appear in any part of Fiorenza’s roughly four-minute presentation at the board meeting or the 11-page PowerPoint slide and memo she provided to school officials. 

West Cook News is a product of Local Government Information Services (LGIS) and is one of about 30 conservative news sites covering various counties in Illinois. LGIS is overseen by Brian Timpone, a conservative businessman and TV journalist. Timpone, a former River Forest resident, also ran Journatic, an outlet that featured hyperlocal news stories and later gained national attention for plagiarism and for using fake bylines and quotes, according to Columbia Journal Review. 

District 200 released an official statement on Memorial Day, one day after the West Cook News article came out, denying any claims to implement a “race-based” grading approach and addressing the story’s inaccuracies. 

“OPRFHS does not, nor has it ever had a plan to, grade any students differently based on race. The article’s mischaracterization of the board meeting is unfortunate and has caused unnecessary confusion,” the districtwide newsletter read.

Fiorenza and district spokesperson Karin Sullivan told Wednesday Journal the school continued to dispute the claims about “the plan” referred to by the local news site and said it does not exist. 

“You didn’t hear me say it in the four minutes I talked [at the board meeting]. There is no plan to do any of that,” Fiorenza said in an interview with Wednesday Journal. “That is a complete fallacy. It’s a false narrative and just untrue.”

Martire also shared Fiorenza’s sentiments. 

“They just completely mischaracterized the process,” Martire said to the Journal in an interview days after the board meeting. “I think that’s what’s most unfortunate about what the West News did – is to make their ideological point and possibly race-bait. They completely distorted a process that is designed to get to a more objective assessment of whether or not an individual student has mastered academic content.” 

This is not the first time the Journal has found and reported on false information from West Cook News. Last year, during a local election, West Cook News released a story about Patty Henek, a former River Forest trustee and village president candidate, and misconstrued her stance on affordable housing. 

The lede in that story read: “Patty Henek is running for River Forest on a platform of bringing more low-income, Section 8 apartments to the village.” Henek previously told the Journal her words were twisted, and she was not interviewed by West Cook News.

Over the course of the COVID pandemic, the site has repeatedly vilified and targeted Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder for her mitigation efforts, calling them “divisive” and countering them by promoting anti-mask hysteria. 

Other articles featured West Cook News promote panic over critical race theory and anti-LGBT rhetoric. One recent story revealed remarks from Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, who described a Pride event at River Forest District 90 as a “left-wing, anti-family political rally.” The schoolwide event, which was held June 1, served as a celebration and marked LGBTQ Pride month. 

In another story, the site aimed to criticize Chapple-McGruder, who specialized in maternal health, for using “birthing people,” a term used by birth workers to include those who are nonbinary and transgender. In that same story, political journalist Katelyn Burns, who is a trans woman, was misgendered, her preferred name placed in quotation marks. 

‘How about ‘lies?’” 

Fiorenza and Sullivan reiterated that teachers are looking closely at different grading methods and implementing them in ways they see fit. The two shared the district is not planning to create a grading policy or mandate but continues to provide teachers with tools and resources to “explore” the best grading practices for their students.

Fiorenza clarified that students at OPRF still receive letter grades and that equitable grading practices are about the teachers’ approach, bringing the focus back to how well do students understand the material?

The assistant superintendent went on to offer an example. She recalled being a student and teachers asking her and her classmates to bring in more school supplies such as Kleenex tissue boxes or Clorox wipes for extra credit. Fiorenza said her own children were presented with that same opportunity and promised extra credit by teachers if they brought in additional tissue boxes or wipes. 

“I got extra credit every year. Even as a mom, I did that for my kids,” Fiorenza said. “They got extra credit for that, but the question is – and the question that we have to grapple with – is that equitable? Are we creating a barrier?”

Fiorenza asked what if she or other students were not able to bring those tissue boxes? They lost out on the points, but what’s more, is how do those points contribute to their actual learning?

“The question goes back to: Do I know what that person knows?” she said, noting that all students learn at different paces. “We want to make sure that our grades reflect what students know. That’s it – just what they know.”

Echoing Fiorenza, Tom Cofsky, newly elected school board president, said the word “mastery” is vital to understanding the meaning of equitable grading practices.

“The whole key here is we need to make sure that we are measuring students’ ability to comprehend the material, and that’s what grading practices need to cover. And this is an attempt to relook at it, to make sure that’s happening,” he said. 

Cofsky told the Journal he was surprised to see the article that surfaced from West Cook News and said another word comes to mind in describing the article: “How about ‘lies?’”

“When I saw the story, I was dumbfounded because it had nothing to do with what the board agenda item covered, and it’s just shameful that the misinformation is being spread to agitate people and divide people,” he said.

For Fiorenza, she believed that people who have visceral reactions to information or misinformation are usually afraid, but what they are afraid of, she doesn’t know.

“It’s really unfortunate because equitable grading practices – if I might be so frank to say – has nothing to do with race,” she said. “It has nothing to do with gender, gender expression, economic status. It is about making sure that the grade reflects what you know. That’s it.”

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