Last-minute guide to the updated CPA Exam

Testing changes reflect the evolution of skills for newly licensed professionals.
By Ken Tysiac

Last-minute guide to the updated CPA Exam
image by Dmitrii_Guzhanin/iStock

The updated CPA Exam makes its debut at the start of this month with an adjusted focus designed to continue to ensure that the candidates who pass it have the required knowledge and skills to protect the public interest.

The updated exam places greater emphasis on higher-order skills of analysis and evaluation, and lowers the emphasis on remembering and understanding. The changes are necessary because the skills newly licensed CPAs need have evolved. Automated systems have been developed to handle many of the routine tasks that new members of the accounting profession used to perform. As a result, newly licensed CPAs require broader knowledge and more advanced skills, which are reflected in the updated CPA Exam.

The number of multiple-choice questions has decreased, while the number of task-based simulations has risen (see the chart, "New Focus for the CPA Exam"). To allow extra time to complete the more complex questions, the Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) and Regulation (REG) sections of the exam will be extended by one hour. Now the four sections—BEC, REG, Auditing and Attestation (AUD), and Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)—will last four hours each for a total of 16 hours of testing.


New focus for the CPA Exam

The following chart compares the content in the updated CPA Exam beginning April 1, 2017, with the content that appeared on the previous exam:

New focus for the CPA Exam

"As we look at the suite of changes that we've made for April of 2017, we've addressed the changing needs of the profession while staying true to doing the very best we can for candidate convenience and allowing for a 20-day score report," said Michael Decker, AICPA vice president—Examinations.

Score reporting will take a bit longer than 20 days during the first few testing windows after the exam rollout as experts analyze the items' and candidates' performance to set the cut score for the new exam. The longest delay is expected during the first testing window, and delays also may occur in the second and third testing windows to allow for evaluation of exam data.

But many of the changes that have been made won't be immediately visible to candidates when they set foot in test centers.

Their surroundings will be the same, there still will be four sections of the exam, and candidates still will have 18 months to pass all four sections. For those who already have begun the testing process, candidates will retain credit for sections already passed within the 18-month time frame. As in the past, preparing diligently and thoughtfully is the best route to success on the exam.

"If the candidates are in the examination studying process, hopefully they're informed and ready to sit for the exam," Decker said. "The candidates who have either worked with review course providers or have followed communications from the AICPA, AICPA.org, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, and ThisWaytoCPA.com will be informed, they'll be ready, and they'll be just as successful in this administration as they have been in prior ones."

CANDIDATE-FOCUSED

A number of changes also have been made to increase convenience for candidates:

  • Forty additional days of testing (10 per quarter) have been created on the calendar.
  • A new, standardized, 15-minute break that won't count against testing time will be offered midway through each test section (see the graphic, "CPA Exam Structure"). Optional breaks that count against testing time will continue to be permitted.
  • Carryover will be in force, so that any sections a candidate passed before the April 1, 2017, launch date will count toward the candidate's licensure. Each passed exam section is valid for 18 months, and score reports will include any relevant expiration dates.

CPA Exam structure

CPA Exam structure

The changes are the result of a rigorous process that included analysis of thousands of survey responses from commenters throughout the accounting profession; conversations with hundreds of people in focus groups; consultation with employers, educators, state boards of accountancy, and candidates; field-testing; outreach and discussion by volunteers on the Board of Examiners and its committees and subcommittees; and long hours on the part of the AICPA Examinations team.

That input and work was designed to result in an exam that would demonstrate to state licensing boards that candidates possess the minimum knowledge and skills to protect the public interest. Although some CPA candidates have expressed anxiety over the changes, Decker said that's to be expected.

"I think it's sort of standard, normal anxiety that the candidates have," Decker said. "I don't think it's unrealistic, nor is it extraordinary. It's a high-stakes test, and candidates clearly view it as such. They're respectful of it, and I think that's a good approach when preparing for and sitting for the exam."

Decker is optimistic that the results will be similar to those of 2011, when the last major refresh of the exam occurred and pass rates remained relatively the same as they were before the update. Candidates' studies may be aided now because, in association with the 2017 update, the Examinations team has prepared new blueprints (see the sidebar, "Study Tip: Learn the Concepts") that contain about 600 tasks that are representative of the content and skills that newly licensed CPAs need. The blueprints can be a valuable first stop for candidates because the blueprints contain everything they need to know related to content and skill levels to be tested—as well as types of tasks they may be asked to complete—at a high level of detail.

ALIGNED WITH EDUCATIONAL TRENDS

The updated exam for 2017 also is aligned with current trends in education that candidates are likely to have experienced in classrooms in recent years. Decker said that should bode well for candidates on the updated exam.

"The candidates of today are being taught a little differently than the candidates of 2011," he said. "They're more familiar with the computer, flipped classrooms, and other improvements that education is making in having students apply themselves through greater application, practice, simulations, essays, and reports, rather than traditional Q&A. I think all of that helps a candidate prepare for the test. And at the end of the day, we're not trying to trick the candidates. We want this to be a fair test."

Candidates also can expect more change in the future as the CPA Exam continues to keep pace with a rapidly developing business world. New test delivery software developed by the AICPA will debut in 2018. Along with the processes that were developed to engineer the 2017 update, the software will allow future changes to the exam to take place more seamlessly, with streamlined implementation.

"Already we're thinking about the next version," Decker said. "The world keeps spinning."


Study tip: Learn the concepts

Memorization can be useful in studying for any exam, but relying on it too heavily can lead to poor performance on certain tests.

This is certainly true with the CPA Exam. CPA candidates in recent focus groups have told the AICPA Examinations team that they have encountered problems on the exam after taking sample tests. In some cases, they have memorized many questions and answers from those sample tests without truly learning the concepts. This strategy may be more harmful than ever now because multiple-choice questions are weighted less in the updated 2017 exam than they were before.

So learning the concepts that will be tested on the exam—instead of just memorizing questions and answers—will be more important now. Michael Decker, AICPA vice president—Examinations, advises candidates to use the new CPA Exam blueprints as a tool to learn those concepts. The blueprints contain about 600 representative tasks that newly licensed CPAs need to be able to perform, and understanding these tasks thoroughly is a key to success on the CPA Exam.

Decker advises that candidates read through all the task statements and highlight the ones they don't understand for extra study. If they can't think of the different scenarios and fact patterns that the CPA Exam could present related to each of those task statements, candidates can consult their study guides and ask their teachers, mentors at work, colleagues, or review course providers to help them understand.

"They need to study it and make sure they know it," Decker said.


About the author

Ken Tysiac is a JofA editorial director. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-2112.


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