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School Reunions, Social Networking Help Researchers Track Students

Broad studies that track students over time are essential to understanding when and whether education policies and programs work, but they're also among the most difficult and expensive methods to use. Now, researchers with the American Institutes of Research are using new technology and social networking to revive a longitudinal study more than a half century after its first interviews with students.

Project Talent was launched in 1960 by AIR, under contract to the U.S. Department of Education, to answer a question that seems just as timely to education-watchers today: Were American high school students being prepared for careers in which they would be satisfied and successful after school? At more than 1,300 schools in every state but Alaska, researchers tested 9th through 12th grade students on core subjects like reading, math, science, and social studies, as well as art, mechanics and home economics. The students also were asked more than 400 demographic questions, including about their family income, background and living arrangements, and their personal health and interests in careers after graduation.

That study, and years of follow-up interviews and reports, gave the first comprehensive national portrait of American students, as well as later perspectives on the workforce, changing roles for women and minority groups in society, and even the after-effects of war.

"It was a flagship study," said Sandy Eyster, a managing researcher at AIR in Washington and a member of Project Talent's team. "Labor economists are particularly taken with it, but lots of folks have been digging through the data. It was kind of ahead of its time."

The project had support and follow-up procedures to track students for 20 years, but conducted its last data collection in 1974. It ran out of money in the 1980s and while Eyster told me researchers occasionally tried to follow up with the former students, it was considered too expensive and difficult to find them in the pre-Internet era.

In 2009, AIR decided to try again. With the 50th anniversary of the study approaching, the researchers began sending representatives to high school reunions at all those original schools. That, coupled with online public information databases, has helped researchers find more than 86 percent of a random sample of 5,000 of the original 400,000 students—though about 20 percent of them have died at this point.

Still, Eyster told me that setting up a continuing relationship with participants at the outset—each student got a tracking ID card and the researchers explained the goals of the study—paid off in the long run. "The people we contacted were pretty engaged," she said. "It was a very big study at the time. When we have gone to reunions, some people brought their ID cards with them."

The project is now crunching data from a new data collection of 5,000 of the original sample, looking at how early education experiences affect students' cognition in aging. For example, "[p]retty consistent with the literature, cognitive ability and personality do predict the likelihood of someone dying prior to age 70," Eyster said. "For women, cognitive skills improve your mortality risk; they decrease risk of dying before age 70.

"For men, it tends to be more personalitymdash;impulsiveness tends to be a big predictor. The effect of impulsiveness lasts much longer than we thought. We think of risky young males engaging in behavior that could put them at risk of dying early, but it appears the risk goes on much longer than that," she said.

Findings like those highlight some of the potential of the massive wave of new longitudinal studies being taken up by government agencies and private researchers alike. But Eyster cautioned that the technology and social networking that are making it easier to conduct these studies could also affect the way researchers must approach study participants:

"When we were originally connecting with our participants we couldn't imagine the data collection opportunities now. This generation is on Facebook, etc.; that's one of the easiest ways to find folks," she said. "But, privacy is a very different concern now than it was in 1960s. Information that people were willing to share with us might be very different in the future."

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