How is the CPA Exam Graded? Understanding the CPA Passing Score

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For many, passing the CPA Exam marks the culmination of many months of effort as well as the beginning of a lucrative career. Most know that you need a 75 to pass, but few are aware that a 75 does not represent 75% correct. Scoring a 75 indicates, per the AICPA, “performance reflecting a level of knowledge and skill sufficient for the protection of the public.” So, how exactly does the AICPA award the CPA passing score? How is the CPA Exam graded? You’ll understand that elusive 75 a little better with the answers to these questions.

Determining the CPA Passing Score

The CPA Exam is what is known as a criterion-referenced test, which means every candidate’s performance is measured against established standards to determine whether the candidate has demonstrated the level of knowledge and skills represented by the CPA passing score. The CPA Exam is not curved, and every candidate is held to the same standard.

The AICPA Board of Examiners sets the CPA passing score by considering historical trends, changes in content, input from the academic community and profession, and other sources. The score is set such that a candidate who passes with the lowest possible score will reflect positively upon the professional community.

Assigning the CPA Passing Score

The AICPA uses Item Response Theory (IRT) for items on the exam that are automatically graded, which includes everything except for the BEC Written Communication Tasks (WCs) encountered on the BEC CPA Exam section. Most WCs are graded automatically, but the calibration for this grading is done using the input from a network of volunteer CPA readers.

IRT scoring ensures that scores from different exam forms are comparable by using the data collected in pretesting. Each exam contains an undisclosed number of “pretest” questions that are being vetted for use on future exams. Pretest questions do not affect a candidates score in any way, and they are indistinguishable from actual exam questions, so do not spend time speculating which questions you can afford to miss!

The data gathered allows the AICPA to rate questions according to three statistics:

  • Difficulty – whether the question is generally easier or more difficult for candidates
  • Discrimination – how well the question differentiates between more able and less able candidates
  • Guessing – the chances of candidates answering the question correctly just by guessing

IRT scoring uses this data to extrapolate scores from different exam forms that accurately represent candidates’ knowledge and skill levels. These scores are comparable because, to put it simply, difficult questions are worth more points and easier questions are worth fewer. It is entirely possible for two candidates to answer the same number of questions correctly and have slightly different scores.

Achieving a CPA Passing Score

Each multiple-choice testlet contains questions that vary substantially in difficulty. The testlets themselves are designated as either “medium” or “difficult” based on the average difficulty of questions they contain. Every candidate receives a medium testlet first. The difficulty of the following testlets depends on the candidate’s performance. If you do well, you will receive difficult testlets next, but if you struggle, you will continue to receive medium testlets.

Producing a CPA Passing Score

Each component of the exam (multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations, and written communications) is treated separately at first. IRT is used to score each multiple-choice and task-based simulation component. The written communication score, which does not use IRT, is also scaled. The scores are then multiplied by the policy weights:

  • 50% for multiple-choice and 50% for simulations for AUD, FAR and REG
  • 50% for multiple-choice, 35% for simulations, and 15% for written communications for BEC.

Finally, the aggregate score is mapped to the 0 to 99 scale used for score reporting.

CPA exam passing score

Reporting a CPA Passing Score

The AICPA does not release sub-scores by content area, but it does report “weaker,” “comparable,” and “stronger” performances. Exercise caution when interpreting your content area performance, because these sub-scores are calculated on a relatively small number of questions and are therefore not an infallible measure of your skill. If you decide to retake any section of the exam, we recommend that you go through all of the material at least once to refresh yourself. A lot of time can pass between attempts, and it is best to keep the material fresh.

Receiving a CPA Passing Score in Q2 2017

Due to the fact that the new version of the CPA Exam launched on April 1, the release of exam scores for candidates who sit in Q2 will be delayed. In fact, Q2, Q3, and Q4 of 2017 will all feature fewer score release dates than in previous years to afford the AICPA more time to set the standards for the new exam version. This process includes statistically validating candidate performance and setting a passing score for the new version, but it does not mean that the CPA Exam will be curved during Q2. As the new exam tests higher order skills and is therefore more challenging than earlier editions, the AICPA must determine the criteria for a CPA passing score, as again, a 75 does not indicate 75% correct.

Preparing for a CPA Passing Score

A CPA passing score concludes your CPA Exam journey and starts the journey of a successful accounting career. To land a CPA passing score and access the benefits of becoming a CPA, you’ll need the CPA review course that enables you to maximize your score for each exam testlet. Powered by our unique SmartAdaptTM technology, Gleim CPA Review adapts to your study needs, helps you strengthen your weak areas, and imitates the Prometric testing environment better than any other course. Take the next step toward CPA Exam success trying our free demo today!

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The article How is the CPA Exam Graded? The CPA Passing Score was first published on the Gleim CPA Blog.