RALEIGH. N.C. (AP) — North Carolina public school students performed better on standardized tests this past spring compared to the year before, according to data reviewed Wednesday by the State Board of Education. But the pupils remain below proficiency rates recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The scores show that 53.6% of students were proficient on state exams during the 2022-23 school year, compared to 51.2% in 2021-22 and 45.4% in 2020-21, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

Fewer schools also got labeled as low-performing or received poor performance grades compared to the year before.

“We’re seeing progress back toward our pre-COVID levels,” said Tammy Howard, senior director of the Department of Public Instruction’s testing office. “We may not be 100% back to where we were, but there’s definite progress being seen here.”

Schools nationwide are still trying to catch up after learning loss brought on as students received limited in-person instruction during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years because of the pandemic. In the 2018-19 school year, the student proficiency rate was 58.8%.

Proficiency tests this past year improved across the board on subjects such as reading, math, science and English, WRAL-TV reported.

“Students and schools still have a way to go to catch up, but we have good reason to think that progress will continue,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said in a news release.

Along with the test scores came the annual state-mandated grades of A to F for public schools. The grades are based largely on the passing rates on exams by students, along with student growth rates on those tests.

Twenty-seven percent of schools received A or B grades, compared to 23% in the prior year. And 35% of schools had D or F grades, compared to 42% for the year before.

Truitt has tried to revise the performance grading system by seeking to add more non-testing measures. The changes would require General Assembly approval. Board Chairman Eric Davis said the grades have been wrongly used for too long to label some schools as being failures.

“But the reality is that when parents look at our schools to determine where to send their children, what they see first and foremost are the school performance grades,” Davis said.

The improved proficiency scores come as state education officials have talked in recent months about how schools are rebounding from learning losses.

A DPI report released in April showed students making academic gains in nearly every subject during the 2021-22 school year. And last month DPI presented data showing more K-3 students are on track on reading than a year ago. Truitt has given a lot of credit to new reading training instruction for the gains.

In another calculation announced Wednesday, 804 schools — or 32% statewide — were identified as low-performing, compared to 34%, or 864 schools, during the prior year.

The four-year high school graduation rate during the past year was 86.4%, which is essentially unchanged from recent previous years.