Home Local Race, politics and misinformation combine as false story about Oak Park and River Forest High School grading goes viral

Race, politics and misinformation combine as false story about Oak Park and River Forest High School grading goes viral

by staff

An Oak Park and River Forest High School administrator had just finished a presentation last week about student assessment when school board member Ralph Martire nervously seized upon a phrase that had popped up several times.

“Equitable grading practices — people are going to hear that and not understand it,” he said. “We are going to get some very uninformed comments about this.”

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He was right. Within days a website called West Cook News used the presentation as the basis for a story that claimed the school was creating a race-based grading system that would require teachers “to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students.”

Nothing in the presentation suggested such a policy, and school officials say the story is false. But the account, magnified by influencers and conservative media, still rocketed around the internet, leading to volleys of insulting comments and what the school called “unnecessary confusion.”

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The story also spilled over into Illinois politics. Darren Bailey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, told West Cook News the supposed grading policy was “the latest example of ‘woke’ ideology polluting our schools” and promised to stamp it out if he wins election.

Neither Bailey’s spokesman nor the website’s operators responded to the Tribune’s requests for comment, and school officials declined to be interviewed. But experts say the episode illustrates how quickly a fake story can travel through cyberspace — and how difficult it can be to correct.

“Somebody’s really got to be following the story in a sustained way (to discover a debunking),” said Nikki Usher, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has lectured on misinformation. “The majority of people who consume news and information aren’t doing that with this kind of story; it just exists in the ether. Once something ricochets across the internet it’s too late.”

West Cook News is part of a venture called Local Government Information Services, or LGIS, that runs more than 30 localized websites in Illinois. One of the people behind LGIS is media entrepreneur Brian Timpone, who owned a company that provided hyperlocal news to the Tribune until the newspaper suspended the arrangement amid complaints of plagiarism and fake bylines.

Another is Republican operative and talk show host Dan Proft, who formed LGIS before the 2016 general election. His current relationship to the company is unclear, though he has tweeted and defended the grading story.

A 2018 Tribune investigation found many LGIS stories featured candidates supported by Proft’s political committee. In a roundabout way, Bailey appears to be a similar beneficiary.

Proft has said he is backing Bailey for governor, and according to campaign finance documents, a newly formed committee Proft runs has spent millions attacking Bailey’s top rival for the Republican nomination, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.

In recent weeks, LGIS sites have run several culture war-themed stories that were preceded or followed by stories featuring Bailey’s comments. They include a disparaging preview of Lake County PrideFest, a Machesney Park school district’s decision to ban the book “Gender Queer” and the raising of an LGBTQ flag by River Forest schoolchildren.

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The OPRF grading story fits that mold.

In a presentation on student assessment made at the May 26 school board meeting, administrator Laurie Fiorenza said the school plans to establish an equitable grading philosophy by next year. The only mention of race came in a slide, skipped over at the meeting, that said the school would evaluate grading using “evidence-backed research and the racial equity analysis tool.”

Martire, who outside of his school board duties runs a left-leaning nonprofit called the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, gave a benign explanation of the contemplated changes, using the example of a student who scores a zero on a quiz but later shows command of the material.

“Why should those zero points hold down that kid’s grade when the kid is demonstrating mastery of the academic content?” he said at the meeting. “That’s what moving to an equitable grading system is. It’s understanding that students grow at different paces.”

The West Cook News story, published Monday without a writer’s byline, didn’t mention that. Instead, it claimed without evidence the school will “order its teachers to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionally hurt the grades of black students.”

One day later, the website published Bailey’s take.

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“Any school district attempting to infect wokeness into the grading policies will be ineligible for state funding,” he said. “There will be no place for left-wing ideology in the classroom in a Darren Bailey administration.”

In a statement issued Tuesday, school officials said the story was not true, and that they have no intention of implementing a race-based grading policy.

“We encourage the community to seek information directly from the district or other reliable news sources rather than internet sources that continue to share inaccurate information,” they said.

By then the story had already spread widely even as Facebook slapped it with a “false information” tag. A version carried by the conservative Breitbart website accumulated more than 10,000 Facebook shares and 8,000 comments.

Meanwhile, numerous people have tried to discredit the story. Radio host Peter Sagal, whose children attended OPRF, said on Twitter the school was being “smeared with lies.” A blog post written by Georgetown professor Don Moynihan highlighted the story’s inaccuracy and the political maneuverings of LGIS.

Moynihan, who studies attacks on public institutions, said his post has been viewed 39,000 times. He believed it caused some high-profile Twitter users to delete their links to the original story, though others have let it stand.

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“(The post) had some effect, but it’s limited,” he said.

UIUC professor Mira Sotirovic, who studies propaganda, said efforts to correct false stories can be difficult because people tend to perceive information as true if it agrees with their beliefs.

“Therefore, the attempt to debunk the misinformation by elaborating on how the argument / message is wrong may just make it more memorable or reinforce the original message,” she said.

While many who read and commented on the story appear to live far from Oak Park, Usher said it still matters if they get a false impression, noting the battle over critical race theory, which critics say has been rife with misinformation, gained a foothold in Loudoun County, Virginia, before spreading across the country.

“Where do we get our ideas?” Usher said. “Just because something is happening far away doesn’t mean it can’t happen here.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

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Twitter @JohnKeilman

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