How the Uniform CPA Examination is scored remains a mystery for many exam candidates.
If you want to understand the process, first start by tossing out the popular myth that the CPA exam is graded on a curve based on the performance of others who are taking the test section along with you. The exam instead measures your individual performance independently against established, predetermined standards represented by the passing grade. That’s called a criterion-referenced examination.
Second, take comfort in knowing that while the passing grade is 75, the CPA exam does not require you to get 75 percent of the questions correct.
From those two starting points, the road to understanding the CPA exam score process becomes very muddy very quickly.
Complex System Values Difficult Questions
CPA exam scoring is excruciatingly complex and based on awarding individual weights for each correct answer based on its level of difficulty. An easy question earns a low point value while a complicated question has a higher value.
The structure of the exam provides a roadmap. All four sections of the CPA exam start with three testlets of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) followed by a fourth testlet.
Auditing and Attestation (AUD) and Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) offer a total of 90 multiple-choice questions over three testlets. The fourth testlet for both AUD and FAR consists of seven task-based simulations. Regulation (REG), which offers a total of 72 MCQs, calls for six task-based simulations in the fourth testlet.
Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) has a total of 72 multiple-choice questions. The fourth testlet is a written communication task such as creating a letter or memo.
Incorrect answers do not count against you. You get credit for each correct response to a multiple-choice question. You also get credit for correct answers or completion of tasks on the task-based simulations. The MCQs are formatted so that responses can be scored electronically. Scoring the written communication tasks is done by a combination of human graders and electronic scoring.
Three sections—AUD, FAR and REG—give multiple-choice questions 60 percent weight and task-based simulations 40 percent weight in determining your total test score. BEC gives multiple-choice questions 85 percent weight and written communication tasks 15 percent. The weighted average serves as the final grade.
About 15 percent to 20 percent of the multiple-choice questions will not count toward your final grade. They are being tested for future use. Don’t try to figure out which MCQs won’t count toward your total score. Just answer them all as best you can.
Scoring Computer Hands Out Tougher Questions
Here’s how the scoring computer decides whether you will see increasingly difficult and higher-value MCQ questions:
You must complete and submit Testlet One before moving on to Testlet Two and then to Testlet Three. You earn the opportunity to take more difficult and therefore more valuable questions based on your performance on each of the exam’s successive testlets.
The first MCQ testlet is always one of medium difficulty. The computer grading the answers gives a more difficult second MCQ testlet to candidates who perform well on the first testlet but delivers a second medium-difficulty MCQ testlet to those who do not perform well.
Performance on the first two testlets determines whether the computer delivers a medium or a more difficult third MCQ testlet.
Performance on the multiple-choice testlets plays no role in the computer’s delivery of task-based simulation questions.
For more information on CPA Exam scoring, you can visit How Is the CPA Exam Scored? This information from The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants leaves out the psychometric jargon while explaining the CPA Exam score process. This May 2011 article in The Journal of Accountancy gives a behind-the-scenes look at what test takers may expect in today's computer-based environment.
Most CPA Exam candidates know historical pass rate levels average about 45 percent to 50 percent per section. Those who miss the magic 75 mark by a point or two are understandably interested in how Score Appeal works.
The National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) tells us that historically a score rarely changes as a result of a Score Appeal. The automated score verification process makes certain that the approved answer key was correctly applied in scoring. Click here Score Appeal section to learn about Score Appeal.
To see what AICPA has to say about passing rates from 2006 through 2015, check out CPA Examination Passing Rates.