An Insider’s View of the New, Computerized CPA Exam
B eginning in April 2004, a computerized version of the Uniform CPA Examination will replace its paper-based predecessor. While CPA candidates can take the test in its current format only twice a year—in May and November—the computerized exam will be conveniently available up to six days a week in two of every three months. The new test will focus on a broader range of audit and attest topics than the current exam does and put greater emphasis on questions relating to general business knowledge and information technology. Most important, it will assess candidates’ communication, research and analysis skills by requiring them to obtain information from professional literature in electronic databases and demonstrate, in simulations of actual business situations, their mastery of a variety of multidisciplinary skills.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE CHANGES
“In effect,” Bolas said, “the computerized exam sends a clear message to candidates, to the profession and to the public that in today’s business environment CPAs need to be proficient in much more than just auditing standards or tax regulations.”
To Bolas, the most exciting aspect of the exam is that computer-based testing makes it possible to assess not only candidates’ mastery of fundamental concepts but also their ability to provide the complex analysis and reporting clients and employers expect from CPAs. Previously, testing candidates’ research skills would have entailed printed copies of professional standards and tax regulations at each examination site. But anyone taking the computerized exam will have electronic access to specified professional literature and be able to perform the research necessary to answer exam questions. The revised format also will make it possible to test candidates’ spreadsheet skills and ability to express themselves in writing.
“MAKE-BELIEVE” TESTS OF “REAL-WORLD” SKILLS
“Our profession’s primary mission is to protect the public interest,” Bolas said. But various factors can make it difficult for practitioners to develop the competencies they need to do their part in meeting that responsibility. An enormous volume of accounting, auditing and tax guidance has been issued since the 1980s, he said, and practitioners have turned to the Internet and other computer systems for the technical documents and data they need. That’s why the exam must evaluate candidates’ ability to manage, distill and communicate information to their various constituencies.
Simulations will present a series of facts supported by information from databases and other resources, and candidates will be required to make specific recommendations in response to questions. For instance, the test may ask candidates to identify which of several strategies—such as entering into a capital lease or into an operating lease—would be most appropriate for a client and to explain the tax and financial accounting implications of each option. In the course of answering questions, students must demonstrate their basic competence in the use of computerized spreadsheets and communicate their analyses and conclusions concisely and persuasively.
The first scheduled sessions of the computerized exam will employ simulations in three (Auditing & Attestation, Financial Accounting & Reporting and Regulation) of the test’s four sections. It is anticipated that by the end of 2004 simulations will be added to the revised test’s new Business Environment & Concepts section, which includes general business knowledge questions not previously asked on the CPA exam. For example, besides covering traditional concepts such as inflation and deflation, this section assesses a candidate’s knowledge of computer networks and systems, planning and budgeting techniques, benchmarking and market influences on business strategies.
NOW PUT IT IN WRITING—CLEARLY
Some CPAs don’t fully acknowledge this, Bolas said. He believes both experienced and newly certified professionals often underestimate the importance of communication skills. “You might do a terrific job of analyzing a particular issue and coming up with a conclusion,” he said, “but it won’t do your client much good if you can’t communicate those findings clearly and completely. CPAs must be able to construct skillful and articulate reports relaying their findings to their clients, other CPAs and government regulators. The computerized test will assess that capability in a way never before possible.”
HOW CANDIDATES CAN PREPARE
As an adjunct accounting professor at St. Bonaventure University in New York, Bolas is well aware of the computerized exam’s importance to students. “They recognize their need for a solid basis of business knowledge not only to pass the exam but also to be effective CPAs,” he said.
Bolas also believes corporate internships are a good way to prepare for the test. But the most effective way for candidates to familiarize themselves with the new format, Bolas said, is to visit www.cpa-exam.org , where they can avail themselves of a comprehensive exam tutorial and other useful resources, including the latest news about the exam and a video explaining it. “That’s the best first step candidates can take to understand what will be expected of them,” he said.