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West Hernando Middle faces federal sanctions for not testing the severely impaired.

Some 28 severely disabled children are at the center of a controversy that has pushed West Hernando Middle School to the brink of federal sanctions, according to school officials.

They're among 5,000 students affected by a state-federal squabble over how best to assess academic gains among Florida's neediest children.

The students - many of whom use wheelchairs and have Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy or other serious cognitive or medical needs - cannot possibly take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, said principal Joe Clifford.

"None of them could handle a pencil," he said.

Instead, while other children take the FCAT each spring, such children have been evaluated based on a state assessment of their abilities and improvements, the Florida Alternative Assessment Report.

That assessment tool is at the root of the dispute. In a June 27 letter, federal auditors said Florida had agreed with them that those children wouldn't count this year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, "due to the fact that this level (of assessment) is not linked to grade-level content." The state agreed to create a centralized test to replace the FAAR, which the federal government says does not align with state standards.

But state officials said they were still trying to persuade the federal government not to penalize schools affected by the change.

"This is something we've been arguing with them about for more than a year," said Jennifer Fennell, director of communications for the Florida Department of Education. "We think it's unfair."

The outcome of that debate could make a world of difference for West Hernando, a low-income "center school" for students with special needs. The school earned its second straight A under the state grading system, but failed to make adequate yearly progress for the fifth consecutive year in the federal system.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, schools must show adequate yearly progress among all student groups, including those in minority, low-income and special needs subgroups. Schools that fail to do so for five years must begin a reorganization process that could ultimately lead to a change in leadership, charter school status or a state takeover.

The law also requires that at least 95 percent of students in each subgroup be tested. That's where West Hernando got caught, according to its principal.

If the 28 students had been counted as tested in the special-needs and low-income groups as in previous years, the school would likely have passed in both areas, Clifford said.

"It's an absurdity," said superintendent Wayne Alexander. "These are the most severe and most profoundly disabled children we're talking about."

But with no alternative test available this spring, and no way to assess children with the highest disabilities that would have met with federal approval, officials said it was wrong to penalize their schools for something they were powerless to correct.

"We agree that that's not fair," Fennell said, describing efforts to shield schools like West Hernando from penalties stemming from the federal ruling. "That's what we're trying to work on."

Tom Marshall can be reached at or (352) 848-1431.