Almost every local high school graduate entering Pima Community College is deficient in reading, writing or math, a Pima study has found.

Those students are far less likely than their higher-performing peers to earn an associate’s degree, the study says, and they face a higher chance of unemployment and lower wages.

PCC’s 2014 analysis found that 87 percent of recent high school graduates coming through the door needed remedial help in one academic area — 82 percent in math, 40 percent in reading and 36 percent in writing.

One deficiency puts students “at risk” of not graduating, PCC says. Half of incoming students needed remediation in two areas, putting them at “high risk.” And nearly a quarter were deficient in all three, putting them at “very high risk.”

The Star was provided a copy of the report, which the college presented to area school superintendents but never publicly released.

Beyond their own lives, the students’ academic deficiencies don’t bode well for Tucson’s economic future.

“Companies that want to grow and expand don’t, because there are not enough qualified workers,” said Tucson Metro Chamber President and CEO Mike Varney.

Tucson’s largest school districts blame the high deficiency levels on teachers being forced to spend too much classroom time preparing students for the now-scrapped AIMS test.

AIMS was based on old Arizona standards — to pass, students had to show they met a minimum expectation for that grade. A passing score did not mean a student was on track for college or a career after graduation.

Despite that, AIMS scores were used to rate schools — and those with consistently low overall scores could get slapped with a “failing” grade that could lead to student departures, the principal being replaced and sometimes even the school being shut down.

The net result was that schools spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for a test that lacked rigor.

“You spend so much time aiming for what should otherwise be the floor, but is now cited as the ceiling,” said H.T. Sanchez, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District. “I think we spent too much time chasing the test because the stigma of not getting that A or B rating is brutal.”

With the state’s new AzMERIT assessment, which is based on Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, students will have to show they meet a higher expectation for that grade. A passing grade will mean a student is on track for college or a career.

The tougher standards — a set of benchmarks all Arizona children must meet as they move through the K-12 system — should help graduates do better on PCC’s placement exams, said N.J. Utter, who is in charge of Sunnyside Unified School District’s College and Career Readiness efforts.

“In the 30-some years that I’ve been in education, that initiative (AzMERIT) is the first time I have ever seen post-secondary at the table with secondary and with middle schools and elementary schools really backwards mapping,” Utter said. “What a student needs to be successful in college tells us what high school has to look like, what middle school has to look like.”

TUSD CURRICULUM A FACTOR

PCC’s findings are unacceptable, but not surprising, TUSD’s Sanchez said.

An audit he commissioned last year found the district’s curriculum inadequate, with little to no evaluation of interventions designed to help struggling students and schools.

“They didn’t have a consistent curriculum that had been rolled out that assured there was a base level quality on every site,” Sanchez said of the district before he arrived nearly two years ago.

PCC’s report showed that in fall 2013, 87 percent of incoming students from TUSD schools were deficient in math, 44 percent were deficient in reading and 39 percent were deficient in writing.

Those numbers do not include graduates who went on to four-year colleges and universities.

Since arriving, Sanchez has focused his attention on how TUSD can prevent a repeat of those findings. A new curriculum, designed by teachers, is in place district-wide and continues to be refined. Also, the district is assessing student learning regularly with formal and informal assessments and using that data to identify where students are falling short so it can provide interventions early on.

PRIVATE SCHOOL EFFECT

It’s not just graduates of public schools who show up at PCC with deficient reading, writing and math skills.

Salpointe Catholic High School, with a college-preparatory focus, had about two dozen graduates go on to PCC in fall 2013 and the majority of them — 77 percent — were found to be deficient in math. Another 42 percent were deficient in reading. No data was available for writing.

While most Salpointe students go on to four-year universities, Principal Sister Helen Timothy says the school is aware of student struggles in math and actively works to set students up for success.

The profile of Salpointe applicants began to change about five years ago, she said — students are becoming more transient and are exposed to different curricula along the way.

The school recently admitted 347 students for the class of 2019 and of those, 50 are not ready for a college-prep curriculum, she said. So Salpointe introduced a pre-algebra class to meet those students where they are.

“If we put them into Algebra 1 with the skills they come to us with, they would fail,” she said. “So if we are going to admit them, we provide a course that they can be successful in and start them on the path.”

SUNNYSIDE SEEKS CHANGE

Of the nine major Tucson-area school districts, Sunnyside had the highest percentage of students deemed unprepared for Pima College-level work, with 88 percent deficient in math, 56 percent deficient in reading and 54 percent deficient in writing.

Like TUSD, Sunnyside administrators say part of the problem is a clash between AIMS standards and college placement exams.

For example, many students were taught to use a “now, later, never strategy” on the AIMS test, in which they would solve the problems they knew first and return to the ones they were not sure of later. Pima’s computer-adaptive math test shuts down after a student skips or gives incorrect answers on a certain number of questions.

Because of those differences, Sunnyside has been advocating for Pima to use multiple measures for placement rather than relying on a single test. A Denver community college uses the ACT — students who score an 18 in English test qualify for a college-level course.

In the meantime, plans are in the works to give students test-taking tips for the placement exam and suggestions for content review. Students also are being encouraged to retest if they feel the results don’t reflect their skill level.

PCC has acknowledged it needs to improve the way the school determines whether incoming students are ready for college-level work. A report issued a year ago by an internal review committee recommended numerous changes including “multiple assessments rather than a single test” but the college has yet to implement them.

STUDENT SUCCESSES

One new program Sunnyside is testing with PCC’s Desert Vista campus is helping students avoid remedial education and earn college credit in the process.

Through dual enrollment, Sunnyside is offering remedial Math 89 to high school seniors who otherwise would have come up deficient on the PCC test. Through the self-paced course, students progress through PCC’s Math 122 — for which they’ll earn college credit. Should those students choose to enroll at PCC, they’ll go directly into Math 151, college algebra. The credits will also be accepted at any Arizona university.

A few students — like Dhanyra Moreno, who graduates this week from Sunnyside High and plans to attend PCC — have done so well that they finished Math 151 before earning their high school diploma. Much of the material in her PCC course was covered during her sophomore and junior years of high school, she said.

“This will help me get ahead a lot, and with finances, too, because they are expensive classes,” she said.

Luis Chavez, also a Sunnyside senior enrolled in the program, hopes to become a physical therapist.

“Physical therapy requires a lot of math and science, so at least I will have a class off of my shoulders now,” he said.

Math has not always come easy for Chavez, but he feels his skills have evolved, especially through the pilot program, which covers both basics and what is needed at the college level.

The Vail School District is considering the pilot program, as is TUSD’s Pueblo Magnet High School, said Darla Aguilar, math department chair at the Desert Vista campus.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The 2013 unemployment rate for those with high school diplomas was 7.5 percent, compared with 5.4 percent for those with an associate’s degree and 4 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment projections show.

The difference in weekly median earnings between high school graduates and those with an associate’s degree was $126, more than $500 a month.

But getting those higher-paying jobs assumes a city has employers that offer them — and those employers won’t come here if they can’t find enough quality employees. So it’s in the entire community’s interest to help students succeed, said Tony Penn, president and CEO of the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona.

“When you think about people who struggle to meet basic needs, that can lead to circumstances where people fall into a life of crime,” Penn said.

A lack of resources for many could also lead to a dependency on public assistance.

“When an individual does not fulfill their God-given opportunity to maximize their potential,” he said, “it’s a loss to their community, their family, and to future generations.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea