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What a Los Angeles schoolteacher told President Obama

What a Los Angeles schoolteacher told President Obama
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, accompanied by President Obama, earlier this month announces his plans to step down from his post in December. On Monday, the officials met with a Marina del Rey Middle School teacher and others to discuss standardized testing. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
It’s not every day that a Los Angeles public school teacher meets the president.
That’s how Bootsie Battle Holt, the math department chair and a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Marina del Rey Middle School, spent Monday. Battle Holt is a member of Teach Plus, a national nonprofit group that seeks to help teachers influence the policy that shapes their schools. 

President Obama was meeting with outgoing and incoming secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and John King, two teachers and several others, to talk about standardized testing. Battle Holt told Obama about how her school tracks student progress by looking at portfolios of their work. She also told him about how much time testing takes in her classroom, and how there's an unofficial signal at the end of the school year that when the test is over, students aren't as serious anymore. Obama nodded in response.

Over the weekend, Obama and the U.S. Education Department acknowledged that they had contributed to a problem: the ballooning of standardized tests. The acknowledgement came after years of complaints from parents, teachers and their unions about how standardized testing has squeezed time and value out of the school day. 

As a result, the White House released an "action plan" to curtail the use -- and redundancy -- of testing. A maximum of 2% of class time, Obama said, should be used on standardized testing. And according to the guidance, only tests that are "fair" and "worth taking" should be administered.

When Battle Holt got the call from Teach Plus on Friday telling her about her special trip, she was excited to engage in a conversation about standardized testing. But before she could get to the White House, she had a question to tackle. What would she wear?

The challenge was tougher for her than it might have been for the other teacher present, Farida Mama of Boston. "Living in California, I don't have a lot of cold weather wear," Battle Holt said.

So on Saturday, she set out to find White-House-appropriate clothing at Westfield Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks. While browsing for clothes, she asked a salesperson what she should wear to a meeting at the White House. "She looked at me like I was a crazy person," she said. "I didn't buy anything."

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After that experience, it was back to her closet. From its depths, she pulled a long tweed skirt, a burgundy sweater, boots with heels, and a scarf bedecked with elephants that her daughter had bought her in Cambodia.

Next, she sought approval from her fashion consultant: her 16-year-old daughter. "She did approve, actually, which is not easy with a 16-year-old," she said.

When she got to the White House, Battle Holt was first in line for the meeting, so when Obama opened the door to the Oval Office, the first thing he saw was her. He shook her hand. She looked at him and said, "Wow." He brushed it off and told her to come in and have a seat.

Obama's testing announcement came as two education groups released a study showing that public school students in big cities take 112.3 tests between pre-k and high school, or about eight a year.

Battle Holt has engaged with the topic as a teacher, but also through Teach Plus. She held a "testing the test" event in which California teachers provided feedback to the creators of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the new test California is using to measure how well schools are teaching the Common Core.

At the meeting, Obama spoke about how his half-sister is a former teacher. Over the years, she told him about the redundancies of testing and how results didn't come in a timely manner. And with the new report coming out this weekend, he thought it was time to do something. He and both incoming and outgoing secretaries of education talked about how the idea of including student test scores in teacher evaluations blew up more than it was expected to. "Many states immediately started implementing more assessments, and he said basically he took part of that responsibility for assessments getting out of hand," Battle Holt said.

Ultimately, she felt appropriately and comfortably dressed. As for the commander-in-chief, he was wearing a suit and tie, "regular Obama stuff," she recalled. She plans to tell her students about how normal and personable he seemed.

The meeting lasted over an hour, and Obama kept it going longer than it was scheduled for. Before they left, the group posed for a picture around Obama's desk. "I want the two teachers next to me," she remembered Obama saying.

"It's not every day where you get to put your arm around the president," Battle Holt said.

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com

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