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Achievement, often measured by test scores, is a major focus for public school educators and reformers pushing to close the achievement gap -- between American students and those from other countries, and between students from different economic backgrounds.  

Stanford University Professor Prudence Carter wants to shift the conversation to what she says is one of the main causes of the achievement gap. She is co-editor of the new book "Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child a Chance," which turns the spotlight on to the gap in educational opportunities between wealthy and poor children.

Carter says the best way to look at the opportunity gap is to think of two groups of people who need to reach the top of the same building.

"The children at the top are those most advantaged by their parents' wealth, having begun their academic development at very early ages. They board an elevator that speeds them to academic success" Carter says.

 Poorer children face a "steep stairwell" with "broken steps" and "no hand rails" as they strive to achieve. Carter told Marketplace the opportunity gap pretty much begins at birth.

"The reality is that children are not getting the same opportunities in life," says Carter. "Yet, we're expecting children regardless of their backgrounds to get to the same level of achievement."

She says the issue isn’t just about leveling the playing field out of fairness. It makes economic sense to narrow the gap.

“Starting from age 18, we lose upwards of about $160 billion over the course of their lifetime in lost revenue, economic productivity,” she says. “We actually lose more than $600 billion socially because of some of the consequences of not having educated them.”

Carter argues we can take steps to close the opportunity gap.

"Unfortunately, we've been focusing on the outputs (achievement) and not the inputs (opportunity)," Carter says.

Carter suggests we think of the education system as we might a business. A vibrant economy does not expect its business owners to focus solely on outputs, she points out; the quality of inputs determines the result. She says that if we narrow the focus on achievement metrics like test scores, we will never close the gap.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal