Numbers released Thursday by the Department of Public Instruction showed that 21,368 students, or 5.7 percent of students in grades nine through 12, quit high school in the 2000-01 school year.
A year ago, there were 23,587 students who quit, or 6.4 percent of the high school students.
North Carolina still has one of the nation's highest dropout rates, which spiked in 1999, when the number of students quitting school jumped 32 percent statewide though enrollment grew by just 2 percent.
``While we're encouraged, there's still a huge problem we have to address,'' state school Superintendent Mike Ward said. ``Any time you're talking about losing tens of thousands of students, that's far too many. In today's world economy, we can't afford to lose any kids.''
North Carolina now has the nation's second-highest percentage of dropouts among teens 16 to 19, according to the 2000 Census. Ten years ago, North Carolina ranked 10th highest. Ward said he hopes the surge in dropouts in 1999 was a one-time phenomenon.
Education advocates and some state officials say some of the blame for the high dropout rate can go to the lack of academic support for many students when a greater emphasis on standardized testing began in the mid-1990s. Some students gave up and others were pushed out by schools that no longer wanted them enrolled, the advocates say.
Still, local school officials said they believe that a sharper focus on the stubborn dropout problem is having an impact.
``There are lots of different things going on across the county,'' said Linda Isley, assistant superintendent for student services in the Wake County Schools. ``There is heightened attention to the issue.''
For example, two Wake County high schools offer evening programs for students, while all of its high schools offer online courses. The county's alternative programs also help provide options for students who aren't successful in traditional programs, Isley said.
Ward and others are considering holding schools more accountable for dropouts by making the rate a more significant part of the formula that determines how schools fare in the state's testing and accountability program. Now, a school's dropout rate counts far less than other factors, such as test scores. Ward said new funding, some of which could come from the federal government, could be used to help children on the cusp of dropping out. More academic programs, vocational training and counseling services also are being discussed.
The Governor's Education First Task Force also plans to make recommendations next month on ways to reduce the dropout rate.
Some educators fear the dropout rate will spike again when the state introduces a tougher exit exam, replacing the competency test, starting with the class of 2005.
``The dropout numbers really are going to force us to look at this issue squarely in the face,'' said John Dornan with nonprofit Public School Forum of North Carolina.