There’s little doubt that the CPA Exam is among the most iconic gateways in any profession.
CPAs who have passed the exam express both humor and anxiety about the challenges the rigorous exam posed for them. Meanwhile, candidates who are taking the exam view it with a mixture of determination and trepidation.
Just about everybody who takes the exam recognizes that a score of 75 has been set as the passing mark for each of the exam’s four individual sections—Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG).
But how the exam is scored may be a bit more of a mystery to CPAs and candidates. To promote greater understanding of how the exam is graded, the AICPA Examinations team recently published a white paper on the topic. Here are some major takeaways from that report:
Multiple-choice questions count for half the score on each section: For the AUD, FAR, and REG sections, the total score is a weighted combination of scaled scores from the multiple-choice questions (50%) and task-based simulations (50%). The BEC section score is a weighted combination of the scaled scores from the multiple-choice questions (50%), task-based simulations (35%), and written communication tasks (15%). For a breakdown of the types of questions included on each section of the exam, see the chart, “Exam Task Details.”
A 75 is not 75%: The passing score of each section of the exam is set by the Board of Examiners after painstaking review, analysis, and discussion by CPA experts and the Board of Examiners on the knowledge and skills a candidate should be able to display to qualify as a CPA. Once the passing score is determined, it is set at 75 on a scale that ranges from 0 to 99. The 75 is not a percentage correct score, and it cannot be interpreted as a percentage. “Some candidates think that 75 is the percent correct score, or they think it’s a percentile score because they’re used to the SAT, and it’s not,” said John Mattar, director–Psychometrics & Research for the AICPA Examinations team.
Blueprints are a key guide: The Uniform CPA Examination Blueprints study guide is helpful because it specifies the percentage of questions that should be devoted to each content area. It also tells candidates what level of skill they will need to demonstrate on the different topics. “If somebody uses that blueprint to guide their studying, they’re going be looking at a detailed map of what could be on the test,” Mattar said.
CPAs and computers grade written communication tasks: A computer grading program scores most of the written responses. The program is developed and calibrated/validated based on human scorers. All scorers are CPAs who receive extensive training. As a quality-control check, 5% of written communications scored by the computer program are chosen at random are graded by human scorers, Mattar said. In addition, any candidate whose score is close to the passing score will have his or her written communication tasks automatically regraded by human scorers.
Exam difficulty is designed to be consistent: “We build the exams for each section to be comparable to each other, both within a testing window and [across quarters],” Mattar said. “If you and I both take FAR this quarter, you’re probably going to get a different form than I get, but they’re going to be built to be comparable in difficulty and reliability.” Because every form has to meet the blueprint specifications, the distribution of content also is the same regardless of when the exam is taken.
Exam task details
—Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA editorial director.