Low-income students in Maryland made more academic progress over an eight-year period than in any other state in the country, according to a new report.

Fourth- and eighth-grade students in Maryland eligible for free and reduced meals raised their reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the standardized test known as "the Nation's Report Card" -- by a combined 55 points between 2003 and 2011, according to a report by the advocacy and research organization Education Sector.

In fourth place, low-income students in the District raised their scores by 43.3 points. Virginia ranked 40th, with a gain of 15.9 points.

The top 10
State Rank, based on gains by low-income students Score gains by low-income students
Maryland 1 55
New Jersey 2 51.7
Massachusetts 3 47.1
District of Columbia 4 43.3
Alabama 5 42.7
Georgia 6 42.3
Nevada 7 42.3
Florida 8 40.6
Pennsylvania 9 39.3
Rhode Island 10 39.2
Source: Education Sector "The New State Achievement Gap" report

By comparison, West Virginia came in last place with a drop of 8.4 points in the eight-year period.

The test measures academic progress as a student moves from one grade to the next, explained Education Sector Interim CEO John Chubb, one of the report's authors. Each year, a student is expected to gain on average 10 points in each subject.

As a result, score differences between Iowa -- where students across income brackets lost 0.4 points -- and Maryland show that, "kids in Maryland are achieving in fourth grade what kids in Iowa don't achieve until fifth grade," said Chubb.

The report also looked at a state's expected gains based on 2003 performance. In the District, where scores were low at the beginning of the eight-year span, its gains were only about five points better than expected. But in Maryland, where performance was already among the best in the country, students exceeded expectations by about 24 points.

The improvements in Maryland were likely driven by the state's lesser-achieving school systems, Chubb said, pointing to districts like Baltimore and Prince George's County, in contrast to high-performing Montgomery County.

Education Sector's report relied on NAEP scores as a way of determining the success of states' alternatives to aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law, a policy that aims, among other things, to close the achievement gap. The District and 37 states -- including Maryland and Virginia -- have received waivers opting out of aspects of the policy, and eight others have applications pending.

"No matter how we ran the data, what we control, their numbers are proving that Maryland is a state to keep an eye on," said Education Sector Policy Analyst Constance Clark.

Money also helps, said Maryland State Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard.

"[The state legislature and Gov. Martin O'Malley] have been very supportive of Maryland schools, maybe at a time when that support hasn't been there in other states," he said.

Maryland law requires local districts to fund schools at the same level from one year to the next, preventing the kind of budget slashing many states have seen.