Maryland tops the nation in student improvement, making it a trendsetter for the rest of the country, according to a Harvard University study released Monday.

"If the United States had moved at the same rate as Maryland, it would have been moving at the same rate as some of the fastest-improving countries in the world," said Paul Peterson, one of three authors on the study produced by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next. "We certainly could have made some serious strides in the U.S., as other world leaders have been."

Average math, science and reading test scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students in Maryland improved by an average of 3.33 percent each year from 1992 to 2011, the study found. The progress vaulted Maryland's average test score rank from 26th in 1992 to fifth in 2011, out of 41 states. Virginia scores improved by 2.64 percent per year, placing the commonwealth's growth rate at 10th. Virginia's average scores moved from 18th to ninth during the same period.

Source: Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance & Education Next

Hitting the books
Annual rate of growth in student achievement in math, reading and science, 1992 to 2011
Growth rate Rank
Maryland 3.33% 1st
Florida 3.23% 2nd
Delaware 3.22% 3rd
Massachusetts 3.10% 4th
Louisiana 2.83% 5th
South Carolina 2.83% 6th
New Jersey 2.72% 7th
Kentucky 2.66% 8th
Arkansas 2.65% 9th
Virginia 2.64% 10th
Nation 1.57% 25th (of 49 countries)

Though some states had low scores in 1992 and big average gains, and vice versa, the study attributes just one-quarter of the rankings to that pattern. Massachusetts students went from among the nation's highest average scores in 1992 to the top scores in 2011 while maintaining an improvement rate that outpaced most states'.

The District was not included in the study, and nine states were excluded because they did not participate in national tests until 2002.

The United States' average annual improvement rate is nearly 1.6 percent and ranks 25th, just behind Iran, out of 49 countries. Latvia ranks first, with Chile, Brazil, Portugal and Hong Kong rounding out the top five.

Bill Reinhard, Maryland State Department of Education spokesman, said state lawmakers have been dedicated to funding education.

"There hasn't been a lot of political meddling in education reform -- it's been left up to educators," he said. "Those same politicians have provided Maryland schools with really strong funding."

Maryland, ranked the top state for education by Education Week four years in a row, has a law that requires school systems to maintain per-pupil funding each year.

The report notes that simply throwing money at education doesn't always work. New York and West Virginia are cited as two states that dramatically increased education spending with "marginal" improvements to show for it.

Reinhard said consistency is key.

"It can't be a flavor of the month when it comes to education improvement," he said.

Across the Potomac, Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the state's higher performance over the rest of the country "is not surprising." But he acknowledged the state still has room to grow and would likely do so, as Virginia has started implementing higher standards for state-level math, science, reading and history tests.

"This report confirms something we are certainly aware of -- and that is that we need to do better," Pyle said.

But can Maryland continue its pace of improvement?

"That is anyone's guess," Peterson said.

Roxanne Turnbull contributed to this report.