Pilot Test Reveals Dramatic Changes



Pilot Test Reveals Dramatic Changes
In this sixth of a series of JofA articles about the new, computerized CPA exam, CPA candidates who volunteered to take the test give their views on how it compares with the paper-based version.

I n a study conducted between November 18 and December 9 of last year, more than 80 CPA candidates got a firsthand look at the new, computerized Uniform CPA Examination. Volunteers selected from a pool of candidates who had taken the paper-based CPA exam earlier in November tested the delivery system of the new test in an operational setting.

All the participants recognized the advantages of being able to take each part of the exam separately and more frequently than was the case with the paper-and-pencil exam, which was offered only twice a year. “I think the computerized exam gives you a much better chance to pass because it’s given eight times a year and the material is still fresh in your head,” said Lily Yuen.

“Taking one part at a time makes it much easier and less stressful than having to cram everything into your brain for a few months and take all the parts in one 48-hour period,” agreed Christine Li. “With the paper-and-pencil exam, by the second day you were mentally exhausted.”

What the pilot participants said:

Familiarity with the computer is a big plus in taking the test.

The testing environment is much more comfortable.

Scheduling flexibility makes studying easier.

Using the tutorial is vital for success.

Real-world experience is a help.

Most of the volunteers also were relieved that the hustle and bustle of the paper-and-pencil exam were a thing of the past. All said the testing center containing individual cubicles was calmer and quieter than at the paper-and-pencil exam, and the comfortable chairs and computers with 17-inch monitors were an improvement over the warehouse-like environments traditionally used for the CPA exam. “I think it’s much more relaxing than when masses of people are gathered in a large hallway,” noted Li.

“The fact that you are in your own enclosed space makes it feel like you’re in a library, which really helped my concentration,” said Janet Oberstein.

“It’s easy to focus because you can’t see anything on your left or right,” agreed Corina Cetateanu. “Sometimes having other people around during the paper-and-pencil test was distracting.”

The test center also offered other amenities people appreciated. “With the computer exam they gave us a choice between earplugs and headphones, both of which made everything very quiet,” added Yuen.

Computer literacy was the most important determinate of how a candidate felt about the new format. “I have a computer background so I was very comfortable taking the test,” said Li. “Writing the entire essay out by hand used to be exhausting,” she added, “and instead of physically moving exam booklets back and forth and flipping pages, I could find information much more quickly. I was able to split the screen and have the information right in front of me.”

“My overall experience was good because I’m familiar with the computer,” agreed Yuen. “I could just click on the resource button when I needed to access information. There was one part, for example, where I could just cut and paste part of the IRS code into the answers.”

But for Jannette La Sota, who said she was unaccustomed to using a computer for more than 15 minutes at a time, sitting in front of the computer screen was harder on the eyes than the paper-and-pencil exam. She recommends that candidates who haven’t spent much time at a computer practice working with one until they’re comfortable using it for an hour or more.

Virtually every one of the volunteers encouraged CPA candidates to spend time with the tutorial, available online at www.cpa-exam.org . “It definitely would have helped,” says Barrie Titan, “because I would have been more aware of the material covered in each of the different parts—as it was, I was sometimes surprised.”

“It’s now not just learning the material—it’s getting familiar with a new format,” added Oberstein. “That’s what the tutorial is particularly good at doing.”

A number of participants also remarked that a practice exam would have helped even more. “The tutorial was helpful, but it gave me only sample questions with no way of answering them,” said Li. “I would like to have seen hands-on typing of the answers to get a real feel for the exam.” The recently added sample tests at www.cpa-exam.org are free and contain a few multiple-choice questions and a simulation for each applicable section that candidates can use to familiarize themselves with the new exam.

The candidates also agreed that experience in the workforce was an advantage when taking the new exam. “It’s more skill oriented than the paper exam that was aimed at people right out of college,” said Joan’na D’arrigo. “I like that it tested a little more of what I’ve experienced in the field.”

There were some suggestions for improving the exam. “The calculator would be easier to use if it had commas,” said Cetateanu. “The way it is now, it’s difficult to count the zeros.”

Li suggested that the way the computer exam allows you to copy and paste should be made more intuitive. These suggestions, and others made during a formal postpilot survey, are being studied by the AICPA.

Overall, however, the test takers judged the computer-based CPA exam a change for the better. Yuen summed up the experiences of the pilot participants when she said: “There’s going to be a learning curve with the new format, but in the end everyone is going to come out a winner. Given what CPAs are expected to do in business today, taking the CPA exam on the computer makes a lot of sense. It reflects the way we have to think and access information in the real world, and it’s going to make for better CPAs.”

—Adam Snyder

Adam Snyder is a business writer based in New York. His e-mail address is adam@rembrandtfilms.com .


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