How is the CPA Exam Developed?

August 9, 2019

A Closer Look at How The CPA Exam Continues to Evolve

For almost 100 years, the Uniform CPA Examination was offered twice a year as a pencil-and-paper exam. That changed in April of 2004 with the introduction of the computer-based CPA exam, which allowed for both a better testing experience and more frequent testing opportunities. According to NASBA, “the computer-based CPA exam achieved its one millionth administration in 2009” and is now a “state-of-the-art licensure examination.”

How long does it take to update the exam?

The accounting industry and related fields are constantly changing, and the CPA exam must meet these changes. Updated CPA test questions, terminology and even the technology used in the testing facilities factor into the transformation. The time between when a needed change is identified and when questions are ready for testing is usually about eight months, although sometimes the process can be as short as four months.

What's in the CPA Exam

What’s in the CPA exam?

The CPA exam is designed to test candidates’ knowledge of accounting and to provide methods for applying their understanding and skills, requiring extensive preparation.

To do this, the exam contains:

  • Clear, coherent communication
  • International standards for English
  • Technical vocabulary only when it is common in accounting or related fields
  • Parallel grammatical structures in answer options to aid in clarity
  • Rigorously tested questions that are “appropriately informative”

What’s not in the CPA exam?

As explained in the Journal of Accountancy, the CPA Exam is carefully designed to avoid topics that could unnecessarily distract CPA candidates, such as:

  • Advanced vocabulary or linguistics
  • Tricky wordings, slang or colloquialisms
  • Advanced logic skills
  • Specific names for individuals and companies (general references, such as “taxpayer,” are used instead) 
  • Humor, irony and satire
  • References to particular religions, politics or commercial agendas
  • Upsetting situations, such as war or violent acts

Steps to develop the CPA Exam

The AICPA Examinations team treats question development as a “high-stakes” process because of the importance of the CPA licensure process. Timothy Habick, Ph.D., a test development manager for the AICPA Examinations team, stated, “The high stakes of the CPA Exam mean that we have a duty to do our jobs perfectly. We are not aiming for 99%. No. It has to be 100% perfect, and there can be nothing wrong with the questions by the time they’re ready for the candidates. That’s our duty, and we take it seriously.” 

Steps to Developing the CPA Exam

There are four major steps of CPA Exam development.

Step 1: Exam Blueprint review

The Blueprints, which “are based on surveys of practicing CPAs regarding the knowledge that newly licensed CPAs should possess,” are the starting place for new exam questions. They are used to compare content and skills that are needed with the questions already in the test bank to identify new questions that need to be developed.

Step 2: Expert question generation and review

Many experts from across the United States are asked to write new questions, and mentors give the experts feedback for revisions. The questions are then reviewed independently by more experts and, after that, by a review group led by an AICPA test developer. If the questions are approved by the review group, they move to the AICPA internal review procedures.

Step 3: Internal review

The AICPA uses an intensive internal review process in which: 

  • A content manager verifies that each question is accurate, and that it represents an identified topic from the Blueprints.
  • A test developer makes certain that the question is readable, logical and fair for all candidates.
  • An editor checks grammar, style and formatting.

Step 4: Uncounted pretesting

If the question has gotten this far, the next step is pretesting by CPA Exam candidates. These questions do not count toward the candidates’ scores, but they do allow the AICPA’s Examination team to gather real-world test data on each question. For example, if a significantly higher (or lower) than average number of testers answer this question correctly, the test designers will know that this question isn’t designed to properly evaluate test-taker’s skills and knowledge.

If, however, the statistics on the pretest question look appropriate, then the question must receive final approval from a committee of experts. After that, you may see it on an exam as a scored item. 

Where can I learn more about the CPA Exam?

For answers to common questions and access to authoritative resources, check out the CPA Exam Candidates’ Guide at MDS CPA Review.