The steepest rise was due to more 16-year-olds being in school
The government has missed all its key targets for GCSE-level exam performance in England this year.
The proportion getting the better GCSE or GNVQ grades rose again, to 53.4 - half a point more than last year.
But the government's wish is for an average annual rise of two points between 2002 and 2006 - making a target of 55.6% for this year.
It had also wanted 92% to achieve five passes including English and maths, by this year. But only 86.4% did so.
A change in the statistics, to reflect students' achievements in a wider range of vocational qualifications, had only a tiny effect (0.1 point) nationally.
By 2004, 92% of 16 year olds getting five or more GCSE passes including maths and English
Result: 86.4% (down 0.2)
By 2004, all education authorities have at least 38% of students getting five good GCSEs or equivalents
Result: seven failed to do so
Two-point average annual rise in % getting five or more good GCSEs or equivalents between 2002 and 2006
Result: 0.5 point rise this year
60% of students reaching this level by 2008
Progress: 53.4% this year
Some have not been incorporated yet, due to what are described as "data collection issues".
But the intention is to include certificates in salon reception or cake decoration on a par with higher-grade GCSEs.
On this new basis the proportion not achieving any passes this year dropped from 5.4 to 4.2.
In the core subjects of English, maths and science, 84% managed to pass a GCSE - down from 86% last year - and 39% did do at grade C or above, the same as last year.
For local education authorities (LEAs), the target was for at least 38% of pupils in each area to have achieved the better grades in GCSEs and GNVQs by this year.
Seven have not done so, with 142 of the 149 authorities managing this minimum. Overall, averages range from 34.1% to 92.9%.
Hull was the worst performing LEA. The best mainland LEAs were Redbridge in Essex (66.5%) and Sutton, Surrey (66.1%).
In the city of Nottingham, 10.6% of pupils failed to get a single qualification.
All these figures are still subject to checking by schools. On past performance, the final results are likely to be slightly higher when the performance tables are released in January.
In assessing progress, the government statisticians compare the provisional figures with the final, revised figures for last year.
The School Standards Minister, David Miliband, said schools were continuing to make progress.
"Once again we have seen the biggest jumps in achievement in areas that were once written off as failing," he said.
Challenges remained, particularly in the performance of the lowest achieving students.
How GNVQs have helped to raise attainment
"This is one of the reasons why we commissioned Mike Tomlinson's comprehensive review of 14-19 education and why this issue will form one of the central parts of the reforms to be published in our White Paper in the New Year."
But Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said the results revealed the extent to which the current system was failing to meet the needs of many students.
"The government must end the confusion about the future of GCSEs and clearly state that the diploma recommended by Mike Tomlinson must be a genuinely new, integrated education programme, not simply a shiny fresh wrapper around a system that is clearly past its sell-by-date."
The Conservative spokesman, Tim Collins, said only the Tories could rescue schools from "the grim spiral of despair".
"Parents, teachers and pupils must now be utterly fed up with ministerial statements slapping themselves on the back when the truth is that they continue to fail to meet their own targets," he said.
In Wales far fewer details are published, but 51.3% of students achieved the equivalent of five or more GCSEs grade A*-C, up from 51.1% last year.
Thirty-eight per cent achieved a grade C or above in English or Welsh, maths and science.
At advanced level, of the 17 year olds who took two or more A/AS-levels or vocational qualifications the average point score was 20.4, the same as in 2003.
The Education Minister, Jane Davidson, said: Ms Davidson said: "It is very encouraging that our students have maintained, and in some cases improved upon last year's good results."
But she added: "These results do, however, show that there is still a great deal of hard work ahead of us .... We cannot afford to see outcomes plateau for the future."
Types of school
In England, girls continued to outperform boys, particularly at the higher grades where 58.5% achieved five or more compared to 48.4% of boys.
In specialist schools, 56.9% of pupils achieved five or more better grades in 2004 compared to 47.7% of pupils in non-specialist schools.
In schools officially designated as "facing challenging circumstances", the proportion was 31.2 compared to 29.4 in 2003.
In the government's new city academies the proportion attaining this benchmark was 27.4.
This year also saw the first results from the new Applied GCSEs in vocational subjects, worth two GCSEs.
On average, 34.1% of students managed grade CC or above. Those doing applied art and design did best - 48.7% - while manufacturing was at the other end of the scale on 22.8%.
The national totals cover all schools, including those for children with special educational needs - and those in the independent sector which are mostly fee-charging.
In state schools only, the percentage getting the equivalent of five or more good GCSEs was 51.1%.
In the mainstream independents it was, as usual, far higher - 83.8%.
At advanced level, the average point score per candidate in A-levels, AS-levels and key skills was 265.6. The way this is calculated changed this year so no comparison with previous years is possible.
Overall, 90.8% of candidates achieved at least two A-level passes, while 8.7% had three or more grade As.