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Is the CPA Exam curved?

CPA Mythbusters: Is the CPA Exam curved?

Pass rates stay relatively stable, so many candidates believe the exam is curved. However, the CPA Exam is not curved in the traditional sense—CPA candidates are not competing with one another.

A panel of experts decides what it takes to become a CPA, and everyone who hits that target passes. But setting the bar and measuring candidates against it is a complicated process, especially with everyone receiving different exam questions and regulations changing from year to year. How do you compare two candidates with very different tests? Let’s find out. . .

How is the CPA Exam scored?

The CPA Exam uses a scaled scoring method to determine a candidate’s final score. This is why you never see scores listed as percentages. Most CPA candidates know they need a “75” on each of the four exam sections to pass the CPA Exam, but “75” does not mean answering 75% of the questions right. Rather, 75 is the amount of points a candidate has earned for answering questions correctly, and different questions are worth different amounts of points.

For each exam, candidates must complete five total testlets. For AUD, FAR, and REG, the first two contain Multiple-Choice Questions and the following three contain Task-Based Simulations. For BEC, the first two contain Multiple-Choice Questions, the next two contain Task-Based Simulations, and the last contains Written Communications.

Question Types by Section
Total MCQs72
(12 pretest/60 operational)
(12 pretest/50 operational)
(12 pretest/54 operational)
(12 pretest/64 operational)
Testlet 136313338
Testlet 236313338
Total TBSs8
(1 pretest/7 operational)
(1 pretest/3 operational)
(1 pretest/7 operational)
(1 pretest/7 operational)
Testlet 32222
Testlet 43233
Testlet 533 WCs (1 pretest/2 operational)33
Total WCs0300

CPA Exam testlets are weighted differently. For AUD, FAR, and REG, the Multiple-Choice Questions and Task-Based Simulations are each worth 50% of your total score, but each exam has a different number of Multiple-Choice Questions.

BEC has a Written Communication testlet that is worth 15% of your total score. Multiple-Choice Questions are still worth 50%, and Task-Based Simulations are worth 35%.

So even if you get a majority of your Multiple-Choice Questions correct, you still need to do well on the other testlets to pass the CPA Exam.

The Task-Based Simulations and the Written Communications can test any topic listed in the Blueprints as tested as higher than “Remembering and Understanding.” Candidates looking to get the highest CPA Exam score possible will be sure to study all topics, not just those that they think might be tested more than others.

How does the exam change based on my performance?

For each section, the second multiple-choice testlet can be either “medium” or “difficult” depending on how well you did on the first testlet. A strong performance results in a more difficult testlet, which means questions will be worth more points. Task-Based Simulations and Written Communications, on the other hand, are predetermined and do not change based on your performance.

CPA Exam testlet selection with Written Communications

You will not know which testlet you receive, but if you notice that your second testlet appears to be harder, do not panic. It doesn’t mean the rest of your test will be as difficult, and it might be a good omen. Take a deep breath, continue to answer as best you can, and stick to your time management strategy.

Difficult questions are worth more points than easy questions, so candidates who take the same CPA section will likely receive different scores even if they answer the same percentage of questions correctly.

How are point values determined for CPA Exam questions?

As part of the question-vetting process, non-graded “pre-test questions” are included among the scored questions within each CPA examination testlet. These pre-test questions do not count towards a candidate’s score, but the AICPA still sees the responses from these questions. The AICPA collects this data to determine how difficult a question is, if the question is ambiguous, and how accurately it reflects a candidate’s knowledge and skill level. This is how the CPA Exam scoring scale is determined.

On the actual exam, you won’t know these point values, so you should not waste time worrying about how many points a question is worth. Instead, answer each question to the best of your ability and keep following your time management system. Doing so will ensure you get the highest CPA Exam score you can.

Will I know what questions I missed on the CPA Exam?

The CPA Exam is non-disclosed, so candidates will never know how they did on individual questions. Candidates who pass will only know that they passed and typically won’t know their performance on specific content areas.

On the other hand, candidates who failed their exam will see on their Score Report how their performance compared to those who scored 75. This comparison is divided by content area so candidates can see what areas they may need to improve on.

There are only three degrees of feedback: weaker, comparable, and stronger. Candidates will not know where they fall within each category. For example, for a content area labeled “weaker,” there is no way to know whether the candidate was a question away from “comparable” or needed a lot more improvement.

With this in mind, if a candidate needs to retake the exam, they should use the Score Report as a guide of where to focus. But never focus solely on “weaker” areas. It’s equally important to go over the areas labeled as “comparable” or “stronger” as well. Reviewing these areas prevents them from becoming “weaker” for the retake.

An adaptive review course can break down those broad topic areas and help you use your study time more efficiently by focusing your studies on your more problematic areas.

Does the AICPA take into account any difficulties I’m having during the exam?

No. According to the AICPA:

… results are scored using the same process and method to ensure uniformity and the validity of the pass or fail decision. In the rare instances when serious technical problems occur during testing, NASBA may offer you a free retest.

Prometric Test Centers, where candidates sit for the exam, ensure CPA candidates are able to test to the best of their ability. While the exam is not curved to benefit those who qualify for additional assistance, they are accommodated to be able to test without hindrance.

If you need accommodations, check with your state board for the proper procedure. Once you have been approved you will then be able to schedule your exam with your testing accommodations with Prometric.

How can I manage my time on the CPA Exam?

The CPA examination process is rigorous and challenging. Be sure to practice in exam-like environments, especially the closer you are to your test date. Practicing answering questions without distractions and few breaks will help you maintain your concentration throughout your 4-hour exam.

Candidates are given an optional break after testlets 1, 2, and 4, but the clock is not paused during this time. Those looking to maximize their CPA Exam score will pass on these breaks and wait for the one after Testlet 3. Only taking a 15-minute break in the middle of a 4 hour exam can be brutal if the candidate isn’t prepared for it, so practice what you can during your studies!

Budget your time for each testlet and each question. Gleim has developed a time management system for candidates to use during their exam. For more information check out our free CPA Exam Guide.

The CPA Exam does not take off points for incorrect answers, so if you are stumped on a question, do not spend too much time. Mark your best educated guess and flag the question for review before moving on. If you are ahead of schedule during your review time for the testlet you can then spend the extra time trying to solve the problem, but stick to your time budget. You can’t answer questions if you run out of time.

Should CPA Exam scoring affect how I prepare?

Ultimately, it shouldn’t. Because the CPA Exam does not tell candidates how many points a question is worth, candidates should prepare to answer all questions to the best of their ability. This means having a thorough understanding of all the testable topics and mastering the skills they need once they become licensed CPAs.

As you study, don’t just look for answers and try to memorize them, make sure you understand the “why” and “how” behind each question. And don’t try to guess what you will see on the exam, prepare for everything that could be tested. On an exam as difficult as the CPA Exam, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of all topics and expect the unexpected! Utilizing a CPA Review course that provides detailed answer explanations for each question will help you better comprehend exam topics.

Remember, you’re not competing against other CPA Exam candidates to pass the exams, but you are working towards getting the best score you can to pass.

Check out our Free CPA Exam Questions and get a glimpse into the areas you need to focus on as you study. With an all-in-one adaptive CPA Review Course that expertly guides candidates through their studies, Gleim is here to help you pass the first time.