Update: AICPA Changing the Passing Score for the CPA Exam?

December 31, 2010 Wiley

Per a recent release, the AICPA is using “panelists” to determine whether or not the passing score for the Uniform CPA Exam needs to change.

Here’s the thing (and keep in mind that they didn’t ask me my opinion)changing the score from a 75 can only lead to bad things.

Scenario One: AICPA Lowers the Passing Score

Result: Disaster

Think of how many rabidly-pissed off candidates there will be who failed the exam when the benchmark was a 75, but all of the sudden their previously failing score is now kosher.

Let’s say they drop it from a 75 to a … 70. How many MILLIONS of dollars have been spent on re-take fees from people who scored 70-74 over the past few years?

How many people have gone insane staring at an unbelievable 74 on their screen and may have quit the exam because they were just “done” or their spouse said “I can’t take this anymore”?

By doing this, you’re saying that the CBT-e Exam is harder in 2011 than it was in 2010 – which simply isn’t true. What – are passing rates going to drop into the 20′s from the mid-40s? Doubtful.

I say “doubtful” because I don’t know and neither does the AICPA – and the “panel” doesn’t either. In theory, they would have the Q1 window to use as a sample size, but since when did a sample size of ONE count? On top of that, Q1 always has the lowest passing rates of the year. Why? TAX SEASON.

You would essentially need several years of data to legitimately talk of changing the score.

Scenario Two: AICPA Raises the Passing Score

Result: Disaster

By raising the passing score, you’re saying that the CBT-e isn’t as difficult as the previous set up and there is no way of knowing that (see above). You’re also telling CPAs who pass under the new score that they had to work harder for the certificate than those lazy bums who sluffed by with a 75.

When the CPA Exam went to the computer, there was definitely a Paper and Pencil vs. Computer thing going on out there in accounting land. For some reason the Paper and Pencil crowd thought that these young punks have it easier now days, which simply isn’t true. But hey – at LEAST no one jacked with the hallowed 75. Everyone – old and new – had to score a 75 to get admitted into the “club”.

A 75 is a rite of passage. Please don’t change something that isn’t broken.

If I am off-base on my analysis – you’re always welcome to contact me at jeff@another71.com.

Jeff Elliott, CPA
Member, AICPA

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27 Responses to "Update: AICPA Changing the Passing Score for the CPA Exam?"

  1. Brian manthe says:

    Has there been any indications on when they would like to have this figured out by?

  2. I think March is their target according to the PDF.

  3. JW says:

    I wouldn’t mind raising it to 80. Honestly, 75 is quite a low bar when considering the prestige of the CPA title.

    I miraculously passed FAR with an 80 and I knew I did not deserve it.

    The world has changed and therefore you guys CPA have to change accordingly. New materials will be added into the exam as appropriate and therefore the new exam will always be harder than the old one.

  4. Monark says:

    Lets finish everything By March and worry about nothing then :)

  5. Farhan says:

    While both are good reasons i guess at the end of the day, its the AICPA’s club and if we want to join, we will have to play by their rules. Its kind of like joining a fraternity, you will have to meet the frat houses requirements in terms of character, personality, academics and go through their hazing rituals. Most importantly, lowering the pass score from a 75 to say a 70 might piss of a lot of students who failed including yours truly on a 73, BUT the AICPA can make the exam harder and the grading tougher so obtaining a 70 will be as difficult as getting a 75 or maybe even more so. Conversly, if they increase the Pass mark from a 75 to 80 the exam might be more easier so as to ensure that a consistently mid to high 40′s %age of students pass the exam as they do in the current system. I do agree with you that 75 is an ideal benchmark and why tinker with something if it is not broken, especially since the end result will most likely be a similar number of students passing the exam as they do now.

    On another note, Happy New Year to you and your family jeff. Hope the 2011 is happier and more successful for you and your family than 2010.

  6. Osidecompass says:

    Jeff, how will test takers in Window 1 of 2011 know what it takes to pass? Will the bar be moving or still a 75 for them?

    This whole process is a gigantic mess.

  7. JW says:

    @ Osidecompass, if I am reading this correctly, the bar is moving !

    Read this:

    I quote this excerpt from the PDF that Jeff mentioned above:

    “…March 2011…Final BOE review. After the first administration window of the new exam, the BOE will review actual candidate pass rate information. The BOE will establish the passing scores before any results are reported to candidates.”

    “BOE final review and establishment of passing scores will take place at the end of the first testing window for the new exam.”

    Good luck guys !

  8. Brian Manthe says:

    I think an 80 is rather strict. The problem with the exam is that they don’t necessarily test your overall knowledge of the info. Many questions are absolutely written to be confusing. Take audit for example, where all 4 choices could be right or wrong and you have to get inside the head of the test preparer and figure out what they are expecting.

    If they were to raise it higher, then the questions should be written in a much more objective manner. It’s very frustrating learning these topics very well and then dealing with questions that are absurd.

    One example of this is when Phil Yaeger asks Cindy Simpson to answer some questions in one of the videos. Cindy is obviously a superstar with this info and even she struggled with some of the questions. This test is for entry level CPA’s who still has to show at least a year of hands on competency just to get the license.

  9. JW says:

    @ Brian Manthe:

    Contrary to many’s belief and testimony, on my audit exam (altho I never did audit before) I only saw a few questions that have two or more possible correct answers. The rest, they very quite clear cut and straightforward to me.

    I might be too overly confident of my ability but, by default, a CPA candidate must study hard enough to master the materials and be able to pin point the correct answer and don’t just whine and dine at the distracting multiple choices.

    If you are truly ready, you will do just fine and receive a passing score.

  10. Brian says:

    My response to the difficulty of questions was to the thought of actually raising the bar to 80 as being passing. I do believe there is a sense of arrogance on your part to think that the 50% of people that don’t pass each time just haven’t studied hard enough and don’t have a mastery of the topics.

    You can’t tell me that people that have struggled with sections 2,3 even 4 times, don’t know the information like the back of their hand, and struggle with just trying to decipher these difficult worded questions.

    So my response wasn’t to whine about the confusing questions it was to refute the idea that changing the exam to an 80 doesn’t necessarily weed out the good and bad CPA candidates, but rather may just weed out better test takers. The failure percentage of the exam at 75 is already unbelievable low, so why try to squeeze it anymore.

  11. MM says:

    In the past, MC counted as 70% of the overall grade (and everyone had at least a 25% change of getting a correct answer just by guessing on MC, and usually more like a 50% chance). However, now MC is weighted at only 60% of the candidates overall score (for the life of me, I don’t know why they changed this, especially since they have removed the WC from AUD, REG, and FAR – which was essentially freebie points). This means new candidates have to do even better on the sims than in the past (WC removed, plus sims weight increased). The sims have notoriously been the most difficult part of the exams

    If the passing score is not changed, or if the weights are not changed back to 70%/30%, I can’t imagine it being even close to an apples/apples situation. I’d prefer that 75 remain the score, but the weights be changed back to 70%/30%…with some gimme stuff on the sims. :) At this point, I fear 2011 exam takers are definitely going to be at a disadvantage, due to the transition and uncertainty.

  12. Name (required) says:

    My opinion:
    The only reason that there is a possibility of the exam passing score may be changed is because of the changing aspect of the exam. Even if they lower it, there should not be any reason for people to piss and moan because it is NOT even close to the same exam that they took. Like if they got a 74 on a 2010 exam. I like the perspective that they are changing the percentage 60/40 because that is really going to test competence. MC gives you a 25% chance a a question you may not know squat about.

    If you honestly put in the 20 hrs a week for 4-6 weeks for each section you should be able to pass (hands down). Being a good “test taker” may help a little bit, but it’s not going to pass the exam for you. The only part of the exam I had to take twice was AUD because I had to take it a week early and couldn’t make up the hours.

    I also think that the passing rate getting close to 50% is high. People who are/ want to be CPAs should want this to stay lower because otherwise the title CPA will lower its prestige. Then, there will have to be another exam we will have to set ourselves apart from a CPA. (I hope some can see my point here) I busted my Butt to finally be able to hold the title and would like the value of it to be the same.

  13. Lowering the MCQ allocation from 70% to 60% makes it not even close to the same exam? The content is pretty much the same with a few additions (IFRS, IAS, Corporate Governance).

    They won’t know if the exam is materially more difficult in 2011 or not until a full year of exams, minimum.

  14. Adam says:

    Since, as I understand, the current 75 is not a percentage why would they even consider changing that number rather than adjusting the curve to allow the relatively same passing percentages? Seems silly to tinker with the #. Ideally, my exam (and chances of passing) was as tough as the paper people as also as tough as the ’11+ people.

  15. MM says:

    I would agree with you, Jeff, on the content additions – just a part of life – we all have to learn/adapt to the new content as time marches on.

    However, based on what I’ve read from other candidates and experienced myself, in general (noting there may be exceptions), simulations are more difficult to contend with, especially with a ticking clock. Assuming this observation is correct, then the weight on simulations changing from 20% (ignoring the WC 10% – which wasn’t more or less difficult than MC anyway, for most candidates) to 40% will almost definitely have an effect the same candidate’s ability to obtain the same overall score.

    Again, my opinion – the BOE should have left the 75 score and the 70%/30% weights in place…at least until they had some time to see the apples/apples effect. I do also agree that results from only one testing window isn’t really going to tell us much.

    My hope is that the TBS will be more manageable than the former simulations (making up for increasing the weight on simulations and dropping the WC from AUD, REG, FAR). This is part of what I think the BOE is still waiting to review; although, they most certainly already have some data in this regard since they have been including TBS on exams sporadically over the past year. Still, I believe the weights will have to have an effect on a similar candidate’s overall score, when format difficulty of one section varies from format difficulty in another area.

    I guess we’ll all see soon enough.

  16. SL says:

    I agree, changing the sims to be weighted more heavily DOES change the exam. Technically content might be the same, but there are far more MCQ than sims. Getting a MCQ you don’t understand isn’t a huge deal because A) there’s a LOT more of them, and B) usually you can at least limit it to 2 of the 4 options (unless you didn’t review that topic at all). However, getting a sim you don’t understand can have a huge negative impact on your score… and now that negative impact is even huger (forgive my deliberate poor grammar, please… lol)

  17. Name (required) says:

    That is excactely how I felt which is why I think that the passing score may need to be changed. That being said if they do change it either way (to a 70 or 80) than previous exam takers/ no pass and people who have passed have no reason to be ticked about the score being changed because it is different. The AICPA is still requireing the same amount of basic accounting knowledge before giving a pass on a section. That being said, I can see how this would raise controversy.

  18. Tex says:

    I took Audit yesterday and this should be my last section. After almost a year of misery I’m ready to have my life back.

    Should I be worried that my test is about to enter the scoring process as a guinea pig? I can’t believe this is the first I’ve heard of any of this. It scares me that it sounds like they’re about to take my score and start playing around with it in some grand new experiment that hasn’t been researched very extensively.

  19. Nancy says:

    It seems odd to me that individuals taking any of the parts of the exam should not be aware of what the passing expectation is to be. I am sitting for the AUD section on Feb 22. It’s enough pressure to know that you must score a 75 to pass. It’s even more pressure to know that it is possible that that bar may be lifted to 80 (or some other score as determined by those in charge). I have passed two parts and have two parts to complete. My attempts have all been a minimum of 70 (even one 74), and my passing grades were in the 75 to 78 range. I really hope they leave it alone.

  20. Lech says:

    IMO, a score of 75 doesn’t mean 75%, so who cares what score you get. Its a pass or fail exam with a high bar, and always was and still is. Dont ever let someone fool you into thinking that a paper and pencil exam was tougher, the exam has been adjusted per a quota to allow a certain amount of members, thats it. Its competetive like the business world.

  21. far says:

    As for the difficulty of the sims, they are much more difficult.

  22. far says:

    I also felt that instructions for filling in amounts, etc. were somewhat vague and left up for interpretation.

  23. May Lose One!! says:

    It really doesn’t matter what they determine the “Passing” score to be. They are still gonna do there screwed up way of evaluating the exams and determining if they show pass the candidate or not. If I don’t pass FAR this time, I will lose REG…I was in the 2,000 late releases in the October window that they “were determining” if they should pass or fail..so they score really doesn’t matter..they actually should go to a P for Pass and F for Fail system

  24. Danielle says:

    I just took Regulation this past month (Feb 2011) and feel that Becker had no idea how to prep for the new task based simulations. I did very well on the practice problems, and when I was in the exam this past weekend, they were at least 5 times harder. Does anyone agree?

  25. saba says:

    Danielle – totally agree with the Sims being harder than what Becker prepares you for. I just took my exam and I feel like i was not prepared for them at all…Hopefully others have the same experience and it will lower the curve for passing (whatever the passing rate will be)

  26. Mark says:

    The argument is silly because it’s all relative anyway. About half the people passed per exam session as it stood prior to 2011. You can bet that about half the people will pass in 2011 and beyond. They can make the minimum passing scores whatever they want by altering the scoring system/curve so whether it’s a 70, 75, or 80 doesn’t really matter. About half the test-takers will pass.

  27. John S. says:

    Since the AICPA doesn’t make what goes into getting a 75 public knowledge, they can adjust how hard it is to get that 75 without ever having to publicly change the passing score to say an 80. So of course the passing score will remain at 75, whatever 75 is… They would be crazy to change the number since they would unnecessarily take on all kinds of upheaval from past test takers. It’s just easier to adjust how hard it is to get the 75 – which, in my opinion, is exactly what they’ve done. I just took FAR, and was much more prepared for it this time than last time. My score: +1. Just ONE point better. No way. I knew much more, and I did much better. That worthless explanatory sheet says I was comparable to passers in all sections except the sims – and I know I didn’t bomb those sims. In fact, I’m positive that if I’d done that well on the last version of the exam I would have passed. Moral of the story: The exam has gotten harder, specifically the sims. On top of that, 1 whole sim didn’t clearly say HOW they wanted me to put the answers down – very frustrating when you know the material cold, but don’t understand how they want you to fill in the boxes – and did they throw that one away because it was a bad one? No. I bet they haven’t had enough people get shot down by that one to decide it’s a bad one that they should either get rid of or make clearer. It’s just a casualty of taking a new exam in its first quarter. And increasing the weight of the sims from 30 to 40% makes a HUGE difference – trust me. Heed this warning: prepare for the sims. How? There’s really no way since none of the review courses have any good examples of the sims yet. The only thing I strongly suggest is that you leave a lot of time so you can carefully work through them. When you’re hung up on a mult ch question you’ve just GOT TO let it go.