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CPA Exam Grading Questions, Answers and Tips



CPA candidates who understand the grading process are better prepared to respond to varying question formats. An understanding helps to decrease exam fear. Informed candidates increase their chances of passing. In this post I tried to list the most possibly questioned point in grading of CPA Exam and gives some little answers to the questions. The bottom line of this post tells you [as a candidate] that the CPA exam is graded positively and provides some tips you may find useful. Enjoy!



Who Grades The CPA Exam?

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Board of Examiner’s Advisory Grading Service grades each exam section uniformly and fairly. Yes, it is a fair process. Graders are carefully selected and well trained. The AICPA applies strict quality control checks that include additional reviews if needed. Immediately upon completion of a section, the Prometric test center transmits each candidate’s exam results to the AICPA offices in New Jersey. Tight security is used to prevent loss of data during transmission.


What Is A Passing Score?

A score of 75 represents a passing score. Does this mean that a candidate must answer at least 75% of the questions correctly to pass? No, it does not!. The scores reported to candidates upon completion of each exam section do not represent the percent correct. Simply stated, a score of 75 reflects the examination performance that is representative of a person who has the necessary knowledge and skills to practice as an entry-level accountant.

Because CPA candidates receive different test forms with different test questions, the percentage of questions a candidate needs to answer correctly to earn a score of 75 may differ from one test to another. For example, if two candidates sit for the same exam section, on the same day, at the same Prometric test center, at the same time, each candidate will receive different exam questions. Although all questions are drawn from the same set of candidate specifications, the test forms and questions vary. The AICPA utilizes a large database of questions to generate various exam forms. An equivalent score of 75 on different exams is maintained through a psychometric procedure known as equating.

College students are pleased when a professor announces that the exam score has been curved. Equating is a much more involved process than simply adding curve points. Equating is a psychometric procedure that requires detailed analysis of exam questions both before the questions are included in the database and after the questions have been utilized. Don’t worry; trust the AICPA to perform the analysis and apply the equating techniques. Know that the process is well documented and carefully applied to give candidates the maximum benefit. Use this information only as a reminder that adjustments are made for questions that appear to be of a higher level of difficulty.

The reported scores are numeric representations of your examination performance. Some professors believe that a raw score [total number of questions correct out of the total number of questions given] as low as 50% may equate to a reported score of 75. Don’t spend time guessing what raw score may equate to a certain reported score. Spend your time studying the exam content to do the best that you can. Don’t worry about other exam candidates.

You will be alone in the exam, working on the computer all by yourself. Your success does not depend on other candidate’s results. Your success depends on how well you respond to your questions. There is no need to be perfect or even 75% correct to pass the exam. You have room to make mistakes. You have room to misunderstand some concepts. Go easy on yourself when you encounter rough patches where you are unsure of your response. At the end of the exam, know that your score is calculated fairly.

A score of 75 or higher will make you happy. A score of 74 or lower will require you to regroup and work to improve your knowledge base. Does this imply that the CPA exam is a pass-or-fail exam? Some states and jurisdictions think the CPA exam is a pass-or-fail exam. The state of New York, for example, has passed legislation to report CPA exam scores as pass or fail. Candidates will not receive a numerical score.

Most states have elected to report numeric scores using a scale of zero to 99. No, you won’t earn a score of zero 🙂. To earn a score of zero you simply show up, turn the computer on, and submit your examination results without answering anything. It won’t happen to you.


What Information Is Made Available To The Graders?

The CPA exam graders have no access to candidate data. Information such as candidate name, gender, age, number of previous exam attempts, educational background, and work experience are all retained at the state level and/or in the national candidate database by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). The CPA exam graders see only your candidate number. Your grade is based solely on the answers you provide during the examination.


Is The Exam Machine Graded?

The AICPA emphasizes that humans will continue to grade the exam. Obviously, some sections, such as your multiple-choice answers, are machine graded, as are the drop-down box type answers you provide in the simulations. In fact, there is a major advantage to the computer-based exam grading process that was not always used under the pencil-based model. If you submit an incorrect response within a computational question, you will earn points based on carry-through of your incorrect data. For example, if you are asked to complete a spreadsheet response showing the computation of a company’s gross profit, you will earn some of the points even if your first element, net sales revenue, is incorrect. It is not graded as all or nothing.

You are awarded points by carrying through the incorrect sales amount. This is comforting. Single mistakes won’t affect an entire problem. Yes, humans grade the communications component of each simulation. Machine grading is applied to verify grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Humans grade the communications component, review the overall process, and determine the final grade.


The CPA Exam Is Graded Positively

Most college students are conditioned to negative grading, where exams are worth a total of 100 points. Points are deducted from the 100-point total every time a student provides an incorrect response. The CPA exam is graded using the opposite approach. Each exam section is worth 100 total points. However, when candidates begin, they begin with a score of zero.

Points are earned by responding correctly. The equating process calls for varying point allocation. Some testlets may contain questions that in relation to other testlets are considered to be easy. Other testlets might be rated at a medium or hard level. The average candidate is oblivious to this process.

Most candidates believe all questions are difficult [me too]. Remain determined to do your best. Don’t waste valuable time analyzing the level of difficulty.

Is the CPA exam a hierarchical exam where candidates are asked to exit the exam if they perform poorly? No, all candidates receive the same number of questions in each testlet, and all candidates are given an equal amount of time to complete the exam.


If testlet 1 of the Auditing and Attestation (AUDIT) exam contains thirty multiple-choice questions, there will be thirty questions in testlets 2 and 3. All candidates are given four and one-half hours to complete the AUDIT section, no matter what level of question difficulty they encounter. The reported score has been adjusted for the difficulty level. Fewer correct responses of a medium to hard difficulty level are required to earn the same amount of points earned by answering a testlet categorized as easy.

In other words, candidates who correctly complete a testlet categorized at the medium or hard level of difficulty can earn the same amount of points with fewer correct responses. Don’t fret about this. Know that your grade is primarily dependent on content knowledge.

Learn the content to earn a score of 75 or higher. Count on the AICPA to grade your exam fairly in relation to other CPA exam candidates.


CPA Exam Grading Tips

  • Don’t grade your exam – The AICPA hires a staff to perform this function. Silly as this may sound, candidates have reported to me that during the exam they spent time tabulating their score. First of all, this is impossible. You don’t know if you responded correctly, and you are not told the point values. You have no idea at what level of difficulty the questions you are currently working with have been rated. Second, this is the wrong focus.
  • You have a job to do – During the exam, your job is to answer all of the questions to the best of your ability. You are not the paid grader. You are the exam taker! Complete your job. It’s a huge mistake to think that you can gain some idea of your grade. Wait until your receive your score. Some candidates who thought they were knowledgeable enough to grade themselves gave up and did not complete the entire exam section. Much to their surprise, when the score was released, they had answered far better than they had thought. Had they not given up early, they would have passed. What a waste of time and effort! I know it’s tempting to compute a score. Drop the idea. Use your precious exam time to proofread, rework questions, and check your responses. Complete the tasks that are assigned to you.  Your job is to answer the questions, not to grade them.
  • The grading process I have observed is fair – I believe this will continue under the computer-based exam. The passing score has been set to distinguish candidates who are qualified to practice from those who are not. This means that the AICPA has invested a great deal of time and money to establish passing scores at a level that represents the knowledge and skills entry-level CPAs must demonstrate to ensure that the public interest is protected. Determining passing scores on licensure exams requires expert professional judgment.
  • The AICPA has identified practice experts, who meet as a panel –  These panelists are trained to be consistent in their understanding of the requirements of an entry-level accountant. The panel uses a candidate-centered approach to establishing the CPA exam passing score. In candidate-centered methods, the focus is on looking at actual candidate answers and making judgments about which sets of answers represent the answers of qualified CPAs.
  • There is no way CPA candidates have enough information to calculate their own score – Trust the procedures. Know that they are fair. Work on improving your content knowledge; it takes knowledge within each exam section to pass. Do your job. The AICPA will do its job.

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