Latest statistics show 59% of England's secondary school pupils achieved five or more qualifications equivalent to GCSE grade C or above in 2006.
The focus now is on English and maths attainment
This was 1.9 percentage points higher than in 2005, at the end of Key Stage 4 of the curriculum.
It was 58.1% on the old measure: the performance of 15-year-olds.
Attainment on the new standard for this year's league tables - five good grades including English and maths GCSEs - was 45.8%, up 0.9 percentage point.
Girls continued to outperform boys, particularly at the higher grades: 63.9% of girls achieving five or more grade C or above and 54.3% of boys.
There are marked differences between state schools and the independent sector.
Of the 47,540 privately-educated pupils, 88.1% got five good GCSEs by the end of Key Stage 4, 72.7% including English and maths.
In state-maintained schools, 56.7% of the 644,658 pupils got five good grades, 43.6% including English and maths.
END OF KEY STAGE 4
Five or more grades A*-C: 59.0%
state schools: 56.7%
Including English and maths: 45.8%
state schools: 43.6%
In the new academies, 49.1% got five good grades - and 30.9% including English and maths.
The government's national target is that by 2008, 60% of 16-year-olds will achieve the equivalent of five GCSEs at grades A* to C.
The Department for Education and Skills has not been meeting its 2002 spending review target for an annual improvement of two percentage points. It says the average rise has been 1.6 points.
As well as GCSEs the statistics include GNVQs and other vocationally-related qualifications - and also just over 7,000 AS-levels taken early by some students.
An unpublished breakdown obtained from the department by BBC News shows that actual GCSEs, including those in vocational subjects, accounted for 53% in the 58.1% of those aged 15 at the start of the year who went on to get five good grades.
The composition of the headline rate has changed several times
Full GNVQs have continued to increase in importance, accounting for another four percentage points' worth - even though they are about to be phased out.
Other qualifications now make up just over one percentage point, a tenfold increase since their first inclusion in 2004.
The figures are provisional, and are now being checked for the final school-by-school league tables for 2006 which will be published in January.
Schools Minister Jim Knight said: "The last few weeks have seen a range of pessimists criticise our schools and teachers, describing even quickly improving schools as failing.
"In actual fact, the results today show that fewer schools are failing their pupils with a record proportion of children leaving with five good passes including English and maths and more and more children hitting the highest grades."
But the gender gap was "a deep frustration", with boys only now getting to where girls had been in 1999, he said.
"That really is a persistent challenge for us," he told reporters.
"Why is that? If we knew the answer to that then maybe it wouldn't exist. But I think it is attached to the extent to which we are motivating boys through adolescence."
The Conservatives said the detailed statistics raised grave concerns about the country's ability to compete with highly educated young people in India and China.
Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb said the gap between the headline figure and those who had obtained English and maths had widened for the seventh year running, to a record 13 percentage points.
It was 18 points if science was included - and 26 when a modern foreign language was taken into account.
"This is not a trend that points to increasing standards in our schools," he said.
Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Sarah Teather said the government should be ashamed that so many young people did not have a sound grasp of maths and English.
"Getting more students to take more GCSE subjects is pointless until we've got a handle on why so many struggle with basic skills," she said.
The A-level and AS-level results have also been published and, for the first time, include a much wider range of other, vocational Level 3 qualifications.
As a result, a new points score has been devised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
The average per candidate was 737.7.
On the old measure, which used the university admissions service "tariff", this was 287.4, which was 9.6 higher than in 2005.
Most candidates (94.5%) achieved the equivalent of two or more A-level passes, up 1.3 percentage points.
More than one in 10 (10.6%) achieved at least three A grades, up 1.1 percentage points from the previous year.