More California teens are graduating and fewer are dropping out, according to two years of data released Wednesday by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. But he stressed that graduation rates are still not where they should be, and too many students are failing to make it through.

Statewide, 76.3 percent of students graduated last year after four years of high school, up 1.5 percentage points from 2010. About 14.4 percent dropped out, down from 16.6 percent the previous year.

"Our research shows that chronic absence from school, even as early as kindergarten, is a strong indicator of whether a child will drop out of school later," Torlakson said. "The dropout rate shows there's still much work to be done, particularly to address the needs of disadvantaged and minority students."

In most of the Bay Area, graduation rates in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties surpassed the statewide average. Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara county's dropout rates were lower than the state average. Alameda County's was slightly higher.

School districts such as West Contra Costa are improving their results by engaging students through "linked learning" activities. High schools are broken into smaller groups of students who take courses with the same teachers and are centered around career-oriented themes like medicine, said Wendell Greer, associate superintendent for K-12.

The district provides health centers that cater to the medical and mental health needs of students, making them more ready to learn, he said.

"I think we've changed the culture," he said. "That is our goal, but it's always a work in progress. You never are satisfied until every child's needs are being met."

Graduation rates in Alameda County mirrored the state's upward trend, increasing by nearly 3 points to 78.4 percent overall. Oakland's public schools saw about 59 percent of seniors graduate in 2011, up 4 points from the previous year. The district's dropout rate fell by 5.4 points to 27.7 percent.

To boost its graduation rate, Oakland Unified is focusing on literacy as a key theme, as those with difficulty reading tend to become discouraged and disengaged, spokesman Troy Flint said.

The district gives reading assessments to its ninth-grade students, and those who struggle with literacy take a course that focuses on the fundamentals, he said. Similar to West Contra Costa, the district has also recently created smaller "houses" for ninth-graders who attend large high schools.

In Santa Clara County, the San Jose Unified School District improved its graduation rate 1 percentage point to 83.9 percent this year, while its dropout rate declined 2.5 percentage points to 7.9 percent. The district is embarking on a new strategic plan called "Opportunity 21," which it expects will help lead to greater results in the future, Superintendent Vincent Matthews said.

"The release of the 2011 graduation and dropout information today continues to show progress for San Jose Unified schools including growth among all major subgroups -- including our Hispanic, English learner, and socio-economically disadvantaged students," he said. "However, we recognize that there is still much work to do."

Staff writer Katy Murphy and correspondent Molly Vorwerck contributed to this report.

Sampling of four-year graduation rates for classes of 2010 and 2011*:
District 2010 graduation rate 2011 graduation rate 2010 dropout rate 2011 dropout rate

Berkeley 81.1 80.3 15.7 15.6
East Side Union 76.6 76.1 17.7 17.7
Fremont 82.8 89.2 5.1 5.5
Hayward 64.4 68.4 31.2 26.0

Livermore 89.7 91.2 8.2 6.8

Mt. Diablo 74.8 81.8 18.8 11.4
Oakland 54.7 58.9 33.1 27.7

Pleasanton 95.5 95.7 2.2 2.0

San Mateo Union 85.1 89.3 11.4 8.2
San Jose Unified 82.9 83.9 10.4 7.9
San Ramon 96.4 96.8 2.2 1.6
West Contra Costa 72.6 74.0 22.0 20.5

County averages
Alameda 75.8 78.4 17.1 14.8
Contra Costa 79.9 82.2 13.8 11.0
San Mateo 81.7 83.7 11.4 10.5
Santa Clara 80.5 79.7 13.9 14.3
State average
All students 74.8 76.3 16.6 14.4
Latino 68.2 70.4 20.8 17.7
Asian 89.0 89.7 7.2 6.2
African-American 60.6 62.9 26.8 24.7
White 83.5 85.5 10.7 8.9
*Percentages do not add up to 100 because some students hadn't graduated or dropped out of school as of the fall.
Source: California Department of Education
To see complete results, including school data, visit http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest and select "graduates" on level 2.
For additional details about East Bay results, read the On Assignment blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.