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Last week, a report appeared in the online news site West Cook News, with the headline “OPRF to implement race-based grading system in 2022-23 school year.” It spread like wildfire on Twitter, only to be “debunked” by just as many people, including Don Moynihan, who subsequently wrote on his Substack that “There is no race-based grading or no plans to grade students using different standards according to race.”
On Tuesday, the school district, Oak Park River Forest High School posted a statement on their website, categorically claiming the report was false. By Wednesday, Facebook had declared the article to be fake news and was placing warnings on it.
But as is often the case, it just isn’t that simple. First, the opening paragraph of the original article states: “Oak Park and River Forest High School administrators will require teachers next school year to adjust their classroom grading scales to account for the skin color or ethnicity of its students.”
If one interprets this in a simplistic fashion, that interpretation is indeed false. OPRF is not giving black students bonus points in their grades, nor are they subtracting points from the grades of white or Asian students. But is that what the article really says? The article continues,
School board members discussed the plan called ‘Transformative Education Professional Development & Grading’ at a meeting on May 26, presented by Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning Laurie Fiorenza.
In an effort to equalize test scores among racial groups, OPRF will order its teachers to exclude from their grading assessments variables it says disproportionally hurt the grades of black students. They can no longer be docked for missing class, misbehaving in school or failing to turn in their assignments, according to the plan.
It is clear from the presentation given at the board meeting (agenda here, report here, presentation here, and YouTube video here) that the school is making substantial changes to its grading practices. The report states several times that the school is “implementing more equitable grading practices such as: utilizing aspects of competency-based grading, eliminating zeros from the grade book, and encouraging and rewarding growth over time.”
Here’s my partial transcription of Fiorenza’s presentation (although background noise prevented a complete transcription) at about the 2:45 mark: “We know that traditional grading practices perpetuate the inequities. We are committed and focused . . . to bring opportunities systematically to [?]. We do currently have division heads and teachers working on some of that research of those equitable practices. They are using some of those . . . classroom practices. Next year we are going to focus on establishing a building-wide equity, equitable grading philosophy and helping teachers to include, to use those practices in their classroom.”
School administrators are basing their changes on a set of ideas articulated in several core books mentioned in the slide deck, including “Grading for Equity” by Joe Feldman and “Get Set, Go,”by Thomas Guskey, which was used as the prime text for the school’s 2021 – 2022 deliberations. These books promote a very specific grading philosophy, which is increasingly being adopted by school districts keen on being “progressive.”
In addition to the actions listed in the report above, “reformed” grading practices include eliminating homework from grading, permitting unlimited retakes on tests, and replacing Ds and Fs with “incomplete” grades. I have seen this also in my child’s school. I know that eliminating homework from a grade is meant to eliminate the benefit given to diligent students for doing the work regardless of whether they understand it. But this can harm students by removing an incentive to do their homework when they cannot learn the material without doing the homework to practice their skills.
Yes, This Is Totally About Race
There is a very clear reason school administrators are implementing these changes, and it has everything to do with race. As the last slide states, “Oak Park and River Forest High School administration and faculty will examine grading and reporting practices in academic and elective courses utilizing evidence-backed research and the racial equity analysis tool.”
The phrase “racial equity analysis tool” has a specific meaning. As described on the Seattle Public Schools website, which appears to be the originator of the tool, “The Racial Equity Analysis Tool lays out a clear process and a set of questions to guide the development, implementation and evaluation of significant policies, initiatives, professional development, programs, instructional practices, and budget issues to address the impacts on racial equity.”
In the tool itself, we further read, “The Racial Equity Analysis Toolkit provides a set of guiding questions to determine if existing and proposed policies, budgetary decisions, programs, professional development and instructional practices are likely to close the opportunity gap for specific racial groups in Seattle Public Schools.”
In other words, when OPRF administrators state they are using the “racial equity analysis tool” in revising grading practices, this means they are making these changes with the objective of reducing the gaps between high-achieving-ethnicity and low-achieving-ethnicity children.
Eliminating Grading Practices That Help Kids
After the presentation, school board member Ralph Martire said equitable grading practices mean the “objective assessment of academic mastery” in contrast to a “subjective evaluation,” which “produces inequity.” But is Martire being truthful? Does he understand how this will actually play out?
Consider, again, the key words from the OPRF presentation, that the school will be “rewarding growth over time.” Here Martire cites an example of a child failing a quiz but passing the test later. “Equitable grading” means eliminating that 0 for the quiz.
This sounds great in principle, but in practice will result in students believing they can learn the material at the last minute, and failing both the quiz and the exam. Given that OPRF is also in the process of eliminating honors courses for freshmen, it seems likely these good intentions will play out quite differently when these ideals come into contact with real-world children.
‘Grading for Equity’ Is Indeed about Race
Again, “equitable grading” or “grading for equity” is an education fad across the country. It is entirely appropriate to judge the OPRF plans based on what others have said about these ideas, because they draw on the same experts.
The first chapter of the book “Grading for Equity” is available online. A report on the plans of Pleasanton Unified School District in California likewise is quite informative. In that description, “equitable grading” involves getting rid of extra-credit opportunities, grade boosts for participation or attendance and the like, and cutting down the potential grade boosts of the stereotypical “brown-noser” while boosting other students’ grades. The point of all of these is to change the standards because certain racial groups fail to meet them as well as do other racial groups.
A 2020 write-up by Feldman at the National School Boards Association cites the implementation at San Leandro Unified School District, just outside San Francisco. He claims that after three years, Ds and Fs decreased among special needs and minority students and “grade inflation decreased, especially among more privileged student populations.”
Education Fads Usually Fail Hard
These ideas are new, with no way of knowing their long-term effects when fully scaled up and neither teachers nor students have the excitement of being a part of something “special.” A decade ago, the only references I could find to “equitable grading” (such as this 2013 document from Waukesha schools or this 2011 dissertation) used the phrase simply to mean “fair” grading, with a particular emphasis on students with disabilities.
The specific notion that “equitable” means grading policies that aim to shrink the gap between students of different races and ethnicities has only appeared very recently. “Grading for Equity,” for instance, was published in 2019, and “Get Set, Go” in 2020.
Proponents claim students can learn to be intrinsically motivated to work hard in school and that children who have fallen behind will catch up by working twice as hard later, on if only grading is “reformed” to be based only on their end-of-year achievement. This seems rather fantastical to anyone who, well, has ever known a teenager. Yet schools are diving in and embracing these ideas enthusiastically.
It was just last week that The New York Times reported that Lucy Caulkins, the creator of a children’s reading curriculum in wide use across the United States, has finally, after 30 years, rewritten her instructional materials to explicitly teach phonics to children. Will we see the same backtracking regarding “grading reform” 30 years from now?