Only 64 percent of the state's high school students graduate in four years, a figure that State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills calls "unacceptable" and needing improvement.
Even after a fifth year, only 71 percent of the students graduate, according to statistics released at an Albany news conference.
"That's a situation that must change," Mills said. "Everyone has to graduate from high school with a real diploma. That's not just for a few; it's for everyone."
In Erie and Niagara counties, 36 school districts ranked above the four-year state average. Only two -- Lackawanna, at 45.8 percent, and Buffalo, at 50.4 percent -- were below.
Only Buffalo, with a five-year graduation rate of 62.5 percent, was below the five-year state average.
Many local suburban districts, meanwhile -- plus individual Buffalo schools -- posted graduation rates well above 90 percent. Statewide, affluent suburban districts had a five-year graduation rate of 93.4 percent.
But Mills points out that even in the state's most highly regarded districts, students are failing to graduate.
"This is the wealthiest category of school districts, and even here there are problems," he said.
In Buffalo, School Superintendent James A. Williams called the city's graduation rates "totally unacceptable" and said the system's three-year plan includes measures to improve them.
He cited plans to provide summer school and after-school assistance for struggling students, to beef up athletic and extracurricular activities to "make
school exciting again" and to increase emphasis on literacy in the early grades, as well as a recent Board of Education vote to eliminate social promotion.
"All this must be wrapped around good teaching and learning, and strong leadership," Williams said. In addition, he said, the system and its unions must find cooperative ways to direct more funding to classrooms.
Although the state has released graduation rates previously, this year's data is the most extensive collected. Mills also called it the most accurate. It tracked students who entered high school in both 2000 and 2001.
Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the State Board of Regents, said the Regents are "upset" with the graduation numbers and will place greater emphasis on high school reform.
Mills said school districts should make higher graduation rates a key priority, make sure teachers are certified in the subjects they are teaching, review safety plans to make sure students have a secure environment and implement "plain, obvious, practical things" like making sure struggling students get the extra help they need.
Statewide, girls graduate in far greater percentages than boys, prompting Mills to express concern about the "profound negative impact" that will have on the boys' futures. Seventy-six percent of the girls graduated in five years, compared with just 66.8 of the boys.
"This is a factor that will carry through into college and carry through into the professions," Mills said.
The graduation rates -- like other state measures of academic achievement -- showed large gaps between urban and suburban districts, racial groups and general education and special education students. For example:
* "Low need" suburban districts had a five-year graduation rate of 93.4 percent, compared with just 54.7 percent in big cities.
* White students registered a five-year graduation rate of 83.3 percent, compared with 75.7 percent for Asians, 52.6 percent for African-Americans and 49.4 percent for Hispanics.