Computerized CPA Exam Transforming Education, Workplace

Changing the Uniform CPA Examination to a computerized test meant far more than switching from pencil and paper to a keyboard – not only for CPA candidates, but for accounting professors and employers as well.

When the computerized exam began in April 2004, it was called the most significant change in the licensing of CPAs in the profession's 100-year history.

With the change in format came differences in the knowledge and skills candidates are expected to demonstrate. More emphasis has been placed on written communication skills, research and analysis, and use of good judgment to handle the ambiguities of the business world.

Accounting education reformers are hoping that rote memorization of rules will become a thing of the past, and far more time will be spent on real-world examples because exam preparation is now more comparable with preparing to enter the workplace.

"In this day and age, no one can memorize the volume of accounting literature that's out there," said Arleen R. Thomas, CPA, AICPA vice-president of professional standards and services, in a Journal of Accountancy article last year. "The practice analysis told us to move away from testing that kind of memorization and move toward evaluating a higher order of skills."

William W. Holder and Paula B. Thomas, CPAs and accounting professors, suggested that more classroom writing assignments will underscore the importance of communicating clearly in the work environment. In a Journal of Accountancy article, they wrote that assigning students simulations that involve no black-and-white answers will help them deal with the many gray areas that arise. Requiring research using professional literature is another step to making students familiar with the standards and how to search for answers.

Fresh, creative teaching approaches are being encouraged. Assignments with real companies, teamwork, role playing, and outside-the-classroom experiences can help-not only in preparing for the CPA Exam, but in learning flexibility that is needed in the constantly changing working environment.

CPA Nicholas J. Mastracchio Jr., associate accounting professor at the University at Albany School of Business in New York, described his experiences teaching at Albany. On the first day of class, students are divided into groups of three of four and must work together throughout the course. “We try to keep lectures to a minimum and to emphasize developing their research, writing and oral-presentation skills and ability to analyze audit information. To give the students a feel for an actual business audit, we assign work that focuses on an industry and a transaction cycle. Practitioners who visit and talk about what actually happens in the workplace are especially helpful,” he wrote in an April 2004 Journal of Accountancy article.

Employers can also play a strong role in helping their staff members prepare. First of all, candidates must know that becoming a CPA is a top priority of the firm and they should be given time to prepare. Some observers have suggested using a tracking system to follow an employee's progress.

Arleen Thomas wrote that employers can be of particular help to candidates studying the Business Environment and Concepts section. "Senior people can walk through these questions and really be of tremendous assistance. If you look at what's happening in the accounting world, it's more important than ever that accountants involved in auditing of recording any kind of transactions understand how those transactions fit into the larger picture.”

The Journal of Accountancy examined the success of the computerized exam after one year in an article last July. Fewer exams were taken than expected, and candidates apparently are not sitting for the exam as quickly as they did before. While the paper-and-pencil version was offered only twice a year, the computerized version is offered every two out of three months.

“There seems to be a tendency for candidates to postpone taking the exam until their professional workloads lessen and the availability of testing times may have diminished candidates' perceived urgency to take and complete the exam,” wrote Holder and Thomas.

They added that it would be rare to find an accounting program that would cover all the technical content on the exam. “Candidates must take responsibility for their own exam preparedness.” To review the exam tutorial and sample tests, go to www.cpa-exam.org.

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