Gehlen class of 1960 to continue 60-year national study

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fifty years ago, the class of 1960 was a pack of fresh-faced graduates with their hair up in Brylecreem and beehives, dreaming of the future.

At that very moment, a national research institute took a snapshot of their lives.

Thus began Project TALENT.

Project TALENT was a national study of high school students by the American Institute for Research (AIR) paid for by the U.S. Department of Education.

Participants were asked to answer everything from math problems to questions about their career dreams.

"It was the largest and most comprehensive study of high school students ever done in the United States and it was very nationally representative," said Sabine Horner, spokeswoman for AIR.

Gehlen Catholic School in Le Mars was one of 13,00 schools involved, and its class of 1960 joined more than 400,000 students participating across the U.S.

"It was huge," Horner said. "They came from tiny rural schools and big city schools and we have schools for the blind and deaf. It was just extraordinary in its scope."

Gehlen's participation 50 years ago brought visitors from Washington D.C. to the class of 1960's recent 50th reunion.

AIR is in the process of creating a 60-year follow up study to the original Project TALENT findings, and those AIR representatives wanted to touch base with the original participants to see if they'd be interested in helping again.

In 1960, the first part of Project TALENT began. It was two to four days of testing at the schools.

Invitations to be part of the study had been sent to schools across the country.

Gehlen was one of those that agreed to participate in the testing.

"They tested aptitudes and abilities in a whole range of subjects -- maths and language and spacial and mechanical reasoning and aeronautics and space and farming and hunting and home economics and just about everything," Horner said.

Memory and cognitive ability were also tested, and information was gathered on each student's background. What level of education did their parents have? What careers did their parents have? What was their financial and health background?

The survey also asked about students' aspirations for their future, how they felt about military service, and more.

"They tried to probe why they had those aspirations and what was influencing them and their attitudes toward their high school education," Horner said.

The study was never used for any type of recruitment, only research purposes, Horner said.

Project TALENT wasn't a one-time survey.

Instead, researchers checked in with those same 1960 graduates several times to see what paths they were taking in life.

"This generation came of age in a really extraordinary period in time and were pretty instrumental in transforming American society, so a lot of people are interested in what they've got to tell us and their perspective," Horner said.

The class of 1960 lived through the civil rights and the feminist movement, the Vietnam War era and the dawn of the information age, she said.

Project TALENT has been cited in thousands of scholarly articles, including some as recent as 2009.

Now AIR wants to take Project TALENT research one step further.

The research group wants to survey the original participants and see how their lives have turned out.

"We're attending these class of 1960 50th reunions across the country including in Le Mars," Horner said.

Two representatives from Project TALENT spent a June weekend in Le Mars with the Gehlen alumni.

"They said it was the best reunion they'd been to so far," Horner said. "They were apparently really lovely and welcoming."

Along with enjoying the reunion and sharing some of the fun facts from the original Project TALENT findings, the AIR representatives had another agenda as well.

They wanted to stir interest in the follow-up study.

"The study originally was more of an education study. They were trying to ascertain the talents of the youth of the country to help power it forward into the new era," Horner said. "Now the study will be focused on retirement and aging questions, primarily a health and retirement study."

Researchers will look for everything from early indicators of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's to people's satisfaction with their financial status.

"In essence they're not entirely sure what they're going to find," Horner said. "They'll certainly be looking at how early life experiences affect later life outcomes."

AIR, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, is in the process of seeking money for the follow up study from the National Institutes for Health.

"There's a lot of information we can gain from these people," Horner said. "It's very unusual to have such a large study and be able to follow them over such a long period of time."

The study will help researchers, Horner said, but it could also help change people's lives.

"We're trying to collect an archive of national stories that can help us understand we are as Americans," she said. "It can also help future generations in terms of what we can find in how early life situations can affect later life outcomes."

The actual follow-up study is still being developed by researchers.

"We're hoping to have it next year sometime, but we're taking the opportunity because so many people are having these reunions," Horner said. "It's a great chance to have everybody together."

Members of the class of 1960 can now request their original scores and career path profile, based on their aptitudes and interests at the time they took the first test.

"They can have a look at what they were deemed suitable for and how their life turned out in comparison to that picture of them that was painted in 1960," Horner said.

Originally, they were given those results after graduation.

Some don't remember the first study.

Others, like Tom Kurth, of Le Mars, do.

He remembers the random series of tests he took and the follow-up questions about what he was doing with his life.

He was interested to hear some of the Project TALENT findings presented at the class reunion.

"The one thing that surprised me was they said most of us went to college based on social issues," Kurth said. "They said 'groups of you would go to college at the same college.'"

He definitely plans to participate in the follow-up study.

"Now they're probably going to ask more about retirement and health issues," Kurth said. "They already know what we've done. They're going to follow us to our grave."

His willingness to participate was mirrored by his fellow classmates after the presentation at the reunion.

"I think everybody there signed up, and we had about 80 percent of us there," Kurth said. "I want to find out what they're seeing happen, what the trends are."

Some of Project TALENT's findings:

* Of all school characteristics such as class size or the age of the school building, the teachers' starting salaries had the greatest impact on students' achievement.

* One year after high school, 20 percent of the men were in the military and 20 percent of the women were married.

* The scores on particular tests did vary by gender with boys scoring better in the sciences and girls scoring better in clerical practices, but boys and girls scored the same on Abstract Reasoning which "is relatively free of cultural influences."

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