Digging for Data: In Zimbabwe, the Task Can Feel Impossible

A monthly column focusing on research, data and context in journalism.

GLOBAL PRESS HQ — How many of the students who took national, standardized exams in 2004 earned good scores?

It took me less than 10 seconds to find the answer for the SAT, the test taken by many students in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Education keeps clear, accessible records noting historic test scores.

The same cannot be said for Zimbabwe, a nation that continually boasts of the strength of its educational system but has for decades had dismal rates of success on its exams. Well, it’s our educated guess that the rates, known in Zimbabwe as pass rates, have been dismal. We can’t be certain, because ZIMSEC, the government organization that administers Zimbabwe’s standardized tests, hasn’t released that data to us.

It’s easy in the U.S. and Europe to assume that data will be available when it’s needed. For the most part, we can get what we need, when we want it, provided that the information isn’t classified or privately held.

In Zimbabwe (and in many countries that GPJ covers, for that matter), information might exist in a hypothetically public way, but it’s often very difficult or impossible to get access to it.

ZIMSEC releases Zimbabwe’s pass-rate data every year in the period after those exams are scored. The ZIMSEC website posts records dating back a few years. When a new year is added, information for the oldest year noted on the website is removed.

It stands to reason that ZIMSEC would have data back to the early 1990s, when the agency was created. But GPJ’s Linda Mujuru, a reporter based in Zimbabwe, was repeatedly told that the information wasn’t collected in a single data set. If GPJ wanted the information, ZIMSEC spokespeople said, they would charge us a fee to gather it. But even moving forward on that process has been difficult. To date, ZIMSEC hasn’t even told GPJ how much it would charge.

Everyone knows that Zimbabwe’s pass rates are abysmal. It’s a rare year when more than a quarter of students are successful. Everyone (well, everyone who cares) knows this, because there is constant discussion in the country about how to improve those pass rates and because everyone who cares to look has seen the pass rates as they’re revealed each year. But no one can prove it, because, as far as we can tell, no one, not even education experts, has the data.

That’s true for all sorts of information in Zimbabwe. GPJ’s recently published timeline and analysis of Zimbabwe’s education sector took many months for that reason: Verifying even basic details is a huge headache in Zimbabwe.

For example, when an official makes a speech, and local news outlets banter over what EXACTLY was said, there may not be a formal record to prove anyone wrong – or right. In another example, Zimbabwean news sources have repeatedly published stories about the wave of investment that China is making in the country, but there’s no hard evidence proving how much Chinese money has come into Zimbabwe. (Read more about that here.)

In this place, where people have learned to assume that verification of pretty much anything is a lost cause, society operates on word of mouth, and rumors – and fake news – run wild. (Read about rumors spread on social media here.)

It’s not hard to write down the pass rates every year, as ZIMSEC releases them. It’s just tedious. As far as we can tell, no one has committed to doing that work.

One significant benefit of having long-term team members covering the community where they live is that GPJ can engage in this tedious work, even if it takes years. We will continue to push for ZIMSEC’s data for exam pass rates for years past. At the same time, we are creating our own archive for storing current and future ZIMSEC pass rates, as well as other documents and data.

GPJ is committed to verifying every detail we publish. We’ll make good on that commitment in every case, even if it takes years to confirm something that is widely considered to be accepted truth.