The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) releases aggregate CPA Exam pass rates quarterly after each testing window. Gleim reports these pass rates here immediately—we know you’re excited to see how the entire cohort did!
The latest passing data also helps us understand how CPA Exam changes affect candidate performance, so we analyze and compare CPA Exam pass rates throughout the years. We highlight important patterns and examine how the AICPA calculates CPA Exam scores here, too.
2021 CPA Exam Pass Rates
|Section||First Quarter||Second Quarter||Third Quarter||Fourth Quarter||Cumulative|
We saw strong performances in all four sections throughout 2020, and overall, the CPA Exam average pass rate rose compared to 2019 (57.67% vs. 53.41%). However, pass rates spiked to an unusual high in Q2 and Q3 of 2020. We suspect the global COVID-19 pandemic is responsible.
We’re optimistic pass rates will remain high in 2021, they will likely return to more normal rates.
That said, don’t let the average performance of thousands of candidates scare you! Trust in your own CPA Exam preparations, which can deliver you a passing CPA Exam score regardless of the trends. You can learn more about the CPA Exam and how to secure that passing score by accessing our free CPA Exam guide today!
The table below provides the overall 2020 CPA Exam pass rates for the year.
2020 CPA Exam Pass Rates
|Section||First Quarter||Second Quarter||Third Quarter||Fourth Quarter||Cumulative|
The AICPA released the scores from Q2 and Q3 of 2020, and the results are astounding! Overall, there was a significant increase in the pass rates across all sections. The CPA Exam is one of the most challenging professional exams, so this boost comes as a welcome surprise during a trying time.
Let’s dive into the numbers and look into why the pass rates might be higher this year.
Q2 has seen the highest pass rates on the CPA Exam in nearly 10 years, but likely also has had the lowest number of candidates testing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Q2, nearly half the candidates testing took AUD compared to Q1, and AUD’s pass rate jumped up nearly 18%. Even BEC, which is considered the easiest section, saw its pass rate increase by 15% to 76.92%,—the highest pass rate it has ever had!
|Q2 2020||Percent Pass||Number of Candidates|
Most of the world was on lockdown during Q2, so candidates had more time to study and fewer obligations competing for their time.
Additionally, because of the temporary Prometric Test Center closures, many candidates were able to reschedule their exams free of charge. More time to study per day plus a pushed back test date paved the way for a cohort of candidates better prepared on average.
The AICPA has confirmed that many of the Q2 2020 candidates were better prepared than usual. Not only were pass rates higher, but individual scores increased as well. Q2 2020 candidates performed better on every component (MCQs, TBSs, and WCs) across all four CPA Exam sections.
Test centers then opened gradually, and seating was restricted. It is likely that only the most motivated candidates tried to get the first available seats, given there was no cost to delay by a few additional weeks or months.
Whatever the cause, Q3 scores show that much of what worked in Q2 has continued to work for CPA Exam candidates. The AICPA noticed that many of the trends in Q2 continued into Q3, predominately that candidates were more prepared, and scores were up across the board.
In Q3, we see the number of candidates testing on par with Q1. Although the pass rates for each section dropped from Q2, they are still higher than average for prior years.
|Q3 2020||Percent Pass||Number of Candidates|
Though there are no longer testing windows, Q3 is traditionally one of the strongest quarters to sit for the exam. This could be yet another example of this trend; however, the scores have rarely been this much higher (Q2 is an outlier).
More likely, Q3’s success is a continuation of the effects of the turbulence in Q2. With many candidates postponing their exams and taking advantage of increased study time due to social distancing, they were likely more prepared going into their exams.
Continuous Testing started on July 1, at the beginning of Q3. While Continuous Testing doesn’t help candidates pass if they aren’t prepared, it can help candidates go back in and pass a section they barely failed earlier in the quarter. So if a candidate failed in early July, they would have had the opportunity to resit in the same quarter.
For both quarters, many candidates with sections already passed may have felt the pressure to quickly pass another section or two, in case Prometric had to shut down test centers again. While the state boards all made accommodations for candidates during the shutdown, there was no promise they would continue to do so afterward.
Also, there are some large revisions coming to the CPA Exam in 2021. Candidates are more motivated than usual to pass now so they can avoid having to take the new version of the exam. REG saw changes as early as Q4, with the inclusion of the CARES Act, which probably relates to its higher-than-average pass rates. Recently, REG’s pass rates have been closer to those of AUD.
The AICPA has noted many of the candidates in both Q2 and Q3 were first-time examinees. The AICPA has reported that they have found these individuals typically have a higher pass rate than those who retake a section.
The CPA Exam is difficult for a reason. The certification is sought after because it is meaningful. It signals to employers and peers a certain caliber of professionalism. If the CPA Exam was easier, the market would be saturated with CPAs, many of whom would not be able to contribute at the highest level. The CPA Exam pass rate is something the AICPA is continuously monitoring to make sure accountants who earn the CPA embody its standard.
The AICPA has reported CPA Exam pass rates since 2006, and for the last 14 years, the cumulative average pass rate has mostly fluctuated between 45% and 50%.
The cumulative average CPA Exam pass rate for 2019 set a record high, but this doesn’t tell us the whole story. Each of the four CPA Exam sections are taken and passed (or failed) separately, and each presents a unique set of challenges for CPA candidates.
Since 2015, the AUD and REG sections have both tended to be “middle-of-the-road” as far as CPA Exam difficulty is concerned. FAR has had the lowest pass rate for the past five years, and BEC has had the highest for nine! In 2020, we saw REG start to catch up with the BEC, but we’ll have to see whether this trend continues into 2021.
Back in 2006, CPA Exam pass rates for all four sections showed little variation. They begin to diverge in 2011 due to the massive changes the CPA Exam went through that year. In fact, 2011 boasted the biggest changes since the test was computerized in 2004; when the AICPA introduced testing on IFRS and removed written communication tasks from every section but BEC.
CPA Exam pass rates don’t just change from year to year, they also fluctuate a lot from quarter to quarter. We’ve studied CPA Exam pass rates closely for over 45 years.
Before 2020, when the CPA Exam still had testing windows, there was a trend of low pass rates in Q1 and Q4, with higher pass rates in Q2 and Q3. However, the exam itself is no more difficult or easier during these quarters. The pass rates are almost entirely affected by outside influences, such as holidays and school semesters.
Since Continuous Testing has been adapted, we expect to see similar trends due to these outside influences. However, since there are more opportunities to sit, we may also see the pass rates flatten a bit as CPA Exam candidates have their choice of exam date.
The best way to ensure you will pass your exams is to have a study plan that works for you. We have tips and strategies to help you create your perfect study plan.
There are a lot of factors that determine pass rates: how hard the exam is, how prepared candidates are, any changes the exam is undergoing, etc. Also note: recorded pass rates for the CPA Exam only go back to 2006. The first “CPA Exam” was delivered by the New York Board of Examiners in 1896, so we’re unfortunately missing a lot of data (not that it would be useful for today’s CPA candidates). Let’s look at what affects the modern CPA candidate.
Q1 (January-March) is the start of the busy season for tax accountants. People who work full-time probably find it hard to keep up with studying, so it falls by the wayside. Pair this with the fact that Q1 comes right after the holiday season, another time candidates probably find poorly suited for studying, and fewer people end up passing.
Q2 (April-May) is the first chance most college graduates have to take a CPA Exam section. They don’t have much time to study immediately after classes end, so most likely they have been studying while classes were in session. While they do pass at a high rate, they are not quite as prepared as they might have been in Q3.
Q3 (July-September) is a perfect time for college graduates to take a section of the CPA Exam. Students who graduate in May have all summer to study for the next section. There are very few holidays during that time, and many students probably want to finish so they don’t have to study during the holidays later in the year. This sets them up to do very well when they sit in Q3.
Q4 (October-December) pass rates could be low due to the holiday season, much like Q1. Recent graduates who began the testing process as a student are largely able to complete the testing process by the end of Q3, and so aren’t contributing to the average in Q4.
Accounting coursework overlaps with many CPA Exam topics, so current and recent students tend to perform well on the exam.
These explanations are all conjecture. Still, walking through this reasoning is important because there are critical factors for candidates to consider outside of the CPA Exam itself. While passing still depends largely on how well prepared you are, you should still be aware of the way your environment affects you and craft your study plan in a way that gives you every possible advantage. Are you someone who, no matter how hard you try, will never get work done over the holiday season? Consider that when scheduling your exam. Learn more in our guide to scheduling the CPA Exam.
We’ve already shown that the CPA Exam is difficult. But whatever the pass rates are, they don’t have to define your chances of success. The best thing you can do to ensure you pass on your first attempt is to have a solid CPA review provider by your side when you sit for the exam.
Each candidate who chooses to study with Gleim CPA Review has access to a team of Personal Counselors who can help you create a personalized study plan and will walk you through each step of the exam process. With SmartAdapt™ technology at your side, you’ll be on the path to success.
Passing the CPA Exam is one of the four requirements to become a CPA. It is designed to measure professional competence in auditing, business law, taxation, and accounting. The AICPA’s goal is for every candidate who passes the exam with the minimum passing score of 75 to reflect positively on the profession.
To that end, the exam also tests related business skills, the ability to conduct oneself skillfully and with good judgment, and understanding of professional responsibilities and ethics. Passing this exam confirms you have the competence to practice in a highly specialized field.
The AICPA contracts with third parties to produce multiple-choice questions (MCQs), task-based simulations (TBSs), and written communications (WCs). Exam questions are created and vetted by experts in the fields of accounting, psychometrics, and test development.
Through the development process, these experts ensure that testlets and exam versions will be graded and scored equitably on a comparative basis. The AICPA is ultimately responsible for the creation and maintenance of the CPA Exam.
The CPA Exam is administered at Prometric test centers in partnership with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). After you apply to your state board of accountancy, you will schedule and sit for your exam with Prometric.
The CPA Exam is scored in a largely automated process. MCQs, TBSs, and WCs are all graded electronically; however, WCs may be reviewed and regraded by human scorers if a candidate’s score is very close to 75. The human grading process can push the release of a BEC score back by a week or so.
The minimum CPA Exam passing score is 75 points, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to answer 75% of questions correctly in order to pass.
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 skill represented by the CPA passing score.
The CPA Exam is not curved in the traditional sense. Every candidate is held to the same standard. The AICPA uses Item Response Theory (IRT) to figure out the relative value of MCQs and TBSs. It rates questions according to three statistics:
The calibration for the automatic grading of WCs is done using the input from a network of volunteer CPA readers. This process ensures that scores from different exam forms are comparable. Again, if a candidate’s BEC score is close to 75, WCs may be rescored by human graders.
Using the collected data, the AICPA is able 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.
The scores from each testlet are then multiplied by the policy weights:
Finally, the aggregate score is mapped to the 0 to 99 scale used for score reporting.
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. Anyone who scores a 75 or higher is capable of performing the duties of a newly minted CPA.
The AICPA regularly sets four CPA Exam score release dates per window. For the most part, you can expect your score a few weeks to a month after you sit for the exam.
When your CPA Exam score release date arrives, there are two ways to get your 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 using a relatively small number of questions.
For example, in REG, 10-20% of your exam will be on “Ethics, Professional Responsibilities and Federal Tax Procedures.” If your exam only contains 10% of questions on that topic, that’s about 8 multiple-choice questions and maybe a TBS. It’s useful to know how you did, but we don’t advise drawing conclusions about your mastery of the topic based on such a small sample size.
If you fail a CPA Exam section, don’t panic. We have steps to get you back on track on our blog.
If you decide to retake any section of the exam, we recommend you go through all of the material again at least once. A lot of time can pass between attempts, and it is best to keep the material fresh in your mind.
Read more about how to improve your CPA Exam score!