Ministers want half to achieve five good GCSE grades - A* to C - or their vocational equivalent by 2002, up from 46.1 per cent this year.
They also aim to ensure that 95 per cent of the age group will have at least one GCSE pass, up from 93.4 per cent.
At present, around 38,000 pupils leave school without a single qualification.
The targets are the latest of a series to be laid down as part of the Government's campaign to raise standards.
Ministers have set ambitious primary-school targets to bring 80 per cent of 11-year-olds up to the expected standards for their age in English and 75 per cent in maths by 2002.
Experts said yesterday that the targets for 16-year-olds were considerably less ambitious and would still leave Britain trailing behind many of its economic competitors.
More than four out of 10 comprehensive schools already meet the target. So do half of girls, compared with 40 per cent of boys.
Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, said: "This means that we are expecting half of our young people to fail. Schools are being invited to concentrate on only half their pupils.
"This isn't giving a sense of direction to those schools and local authorities which have already achieved this goal."
Ministers' caution is understandable. Only last week, test results for 11-year-olds showed that the rate of improvement in English was slowing and performance in maths fell.
The new targets replace aspirations which were abandoned by the last government as too ambitious.
These aimed for 85 per cent of 19-year-olds to achieve five good GCSEs or the vocational equivalent.
Lord Dearing, the former government adviser on exams, suggested that 55 per cent might be more appropriate.
But David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, is expected to argue that the new targets are tough and challenging.
Provisional figures suggest that this year the proportion of pupils who received five good grades rose by just 1 per cent, from 45.1 to 46.1 per cent.
Experts believe that the rapid improvement in results after the exam was introduced a decade ago is levelling off.
The proportion of 16-year-olds gaining at least one GCSE, which had been static for four years, rose from 92.3 per cent to 93.4 per cent. Ministers said the improvement happened because it stopped 16-year-olds leaving school at Easter before taking any exams.
Fewer than a third of pupils are awarded good grades in English and maths at GCSE compared with six out of ten reaching the equivalent level in France and Germany.
A spokesman for the National Union of Teachers said: "Schools will only achieve these targets if they have the teachers. They will not do so if the Government continues to criticise the profession unfairly and refuses to pay salaries which will recruit and retain."Reuse content