AICPA Signs Controversial Deal for CPA Exams

On May 28, 2002, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and Prometric announced the signing of a joint agreement to deliver a computerized Uniform CPA Examination. The agreement is seen as controversial because the state boards were divided in their support for a proposal regarding the computerized exam.

According to AICPA's announcement, the new computer-based test is scheduled for implementation in early 2004. It will be delivered by Prometric to CPA candidates through more than 300 testing centers in the United States and U.S. territories. The AICPA will continue to create and grade the exams, while NASBA and the State Boards of Accountancy will be responsible for the overall administration of the exam. Currently, more than 100,000 candidates sit for the exam each year.

Technology's Hefty Price Tag

The new approach brings many technology-enabled advantages. For example, the use of computer-based testing (CBT) will allow candidates to sit for the exam up to four times a year. Currently, it is offered only two times a year. Additionally, the exam will allow candidates more flexibility in scheduling since it will be available up to six days a week, and candidates can arrange to take a single session at a time. But the conveniences afforded by technology may come at a hefty price for some.

The April 2002 issue of "The Trusted Professional," the newsletter of the New York State Society of CPAs, carried a commentary in which the NYSSCPA president calculated a price tag of $600 for a single examination sitting for a first-time applicant based on the state board's estimate of the projected costs. Unless developers can find ways to cut costs, the president predicted the increase over the current exam cost of $250 may be a concern to some.

Arleen Thomas, AICPA's vice president of standards and services, confirms that the cost for a first-time sitting will vary from around $500 to $600 depending on the charges set by the state board. But she points out the overall price differential will depend on each candidate's particular circumstances, since not all candidates pass all four parts on their first try. "Based on the average number of times a typical candidate sits for the exam," she explains, "the overall cost of CBT will likely be lower than the paper-based exam for most candidates."

Still, some are concerned the higher initial cost may have unintended consequences, such as limiting access to the exam and the profession. As a result, the AICPA could find itself in the position of defending its actions against accusations of a possible conflict of interest, no matter how indirect or unfounded. Although AICPA has no direct affiliation with Prometric, the latter is owned by The Thomson Corporation, a key investor in AICPA's distribution arm, CPA2Biz. Because of these and other concerns, seven state boards voted against the computerized exam and four abstained when the proposal was put to a vote in January 2002.

-Rosemary Schlank

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