How Is The CPA Exam Scored?

Updated:November 20, 2018
Jason Galaif, CPA

cpa exam scoring

The system used for scoring the CPA exam may be confusing if you are unfamiliar with the methods followed by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). It’s a good idea to spend a little time to understand the principles that are adopted in the scoring process and to become familiar with the terminology and procedure used to arrive at your final score.

CPA Exam Passing Score Requirements

There are four sections to the CPA exam, and you must score a minimum of 75 (on a scale of 0 to 99) to pass in each.

Section Range of Possible Scores Minimum Score Required To Pass
Auditing and Attestation (AUD) 0 – 99 75
Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) 0 – 99 75
Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) 0 – 99 75
Regulation (REG) 0 – 99 75

The score is often misinterpreted in several ways. At the very outset, you should know that:

It is not a raw score – your CPA exam score is not just the number of questions that you got right. So, if there were, say, 50 questions, and you answered 28 correctly, your raw score would be 28. In actual practice, the number of correct answers that you provide only forms the basis for calculating your final score.

It is not a percentage – if we consider the same example as provided above, a raw score of 28 out of 50, expressed as a percentage, is 56%. [28/50 X 100 = 56%]. The CPA exam score is not a percentage. If you receive a passing score of 80, it doesn’t mean that you answered 80% of the questions correctly.

The score is not graded on a curve – grading on a curve implies that an average score is calculated for the individuals who take an exam, and everybody’s scores are compared with this average. In effect, if scores are graded on a curve, a candidate is competing with other test takers. CPA exam scores are not computed in this manner.

So, if your CPA score is not a raw score, not a percentage, and not graded on a curve, how exactly is it arrived at?

Your CPA exam score is a weighted combination of your scaled scores

You can get a score that ranges from 0 to 99 in each of the four sections of the CPA exam. The scores are calculated using a weighted combination of scaled scores from each of the portions in the different sections of the exam.

Which are the different portions in each section and what are the weights allotted to them?

Section Portion – Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) Portion – Task-based simulations (TBSs) Portion – Written communication tasks Total
Section – Auditing and Attestation (AUD) 50% 50% n/a 100%
Section – Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) 50% 35% 15% 100%
Section – Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) 50% 50% n/a 100%
Section – Regulation (REG) 50% 50% n/a 100%

This table indicates that the Auditing and Attestation (AUD) section is divided into two portions – Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and Task-based simulations (TBSs). Each has a weight of 50%.

Similarly, Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG) are divided into two portions, each of which has equal weight. Only Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) has three portions – MCQs (50%), TBSs (35%), and Written communication tasks (15%).

Remember that the percentages mentioned above represent the weight for each portion. This weight is applied to the scaled score that you get.

Now, what is a scaled score and how is it calculated?

The purpose of using a scaled score is to make the score used for different versions of the CPA exam comparable. Some questions may be more difficult than others. It is possible to standardize the exam results by using statistical processes to calculate test scores that allow the results from different sets of questions to be compared.

The scaled value that is obtained by using a statistical formula converts the raw score into a different figure. Due to this reason, it is not possible to compute your score in a particular section of the CPA exam by adding the number of questions that you answered correctly. The formula to calculate the scaled score takes various factors into account. These include:

  1. Whether you answered the correction correctly or not.
  2. The relative difficulty of the question.

Understanding the multi-stage adaptive test delivery model

The scoring system in the CPA exam has another feature that you should be aware of. The Multiple-choice questions (MCQ) portion of the different sections uses a multi-stage adaptive test delivery model.

This is a scoring procedure that involves a variation in the difficulty of questions that are allocated to candidates. To understand how this works, let us first view the examination structure for each section of the CPA exam:

CPA Exam Sections & Structure

Section Item Types Testlet*
Auditing and Attestation (AUD) 72 Multiple-choice questions
8 Task-based simulations
No. 1: 36 MCQs
No. 2: 36 MCQs
No. 3: 2 TBSs
No. 4: 3 TBSs
No. 5: 3 TBSs
Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) 62 Multiple-choice questions
4 Task-based simulations
3 Written communication
No. 1: 31 MCQs
No. 2: 31 MCQs
No. 3: 2 TBSs
No. 4: 2 TBSs
No. 5: 3 Written communication
Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) 66 Multiple-choice questions
8 Task-based simulations
No. 1: 33 MCQs
No. 2: 33 MCQs
No. 3: 2 TBSs
No. 4: 3 TBSs
No. 5: 3 TBSs
Regulation (REG) 76 Multiple-choice questions
8 Task-based simulations
No. 1: 38 MCQs
No. 2: 38 MCQs
No. 3: 2 TBSs
No. 4: 3 TBSs
No. 5: 3 TBSs

1.*A Testlet is a part of the section.
2. 4 hours are provided for the completion of each section

You will see that each section has a large number of Multiple-choice questions divided into two testlets. Testlet number 1 in the Auditing and Attestation section has 36 Multiple-choice questions, and testlet number 2 in the same section has another 36 Multiple-choice questions. Similarly, the other three sections have two testlets of Multiple-choice questions each.

Testlet number 1 in each of the sections is always a medium testlet. This means that the questions in it are of a medium level of difficulty. If you perform well in the first testlet, then the second testlet that is allocated to you will be of a higher level of difficulty. However, if you do not perform well, your second testlet will also be of medium difficulty.

Why does the CPA exam follow this multi-stage procedure? And how does it affect your score? If you get a more difficult testlet, won’t you find it harder to answer correctly?

The reason for following this system is that it allows the candidate’s proficiency level to be measured more accurately. It should be noted that a difficult testlet would not result in a lower score. That’s because the characteristics of the test are taken into consideration when awarding a score.

The multi-stage adaptive model is used only for the Multiple-choice question portion of the exam. It is not used for Task-based simulations or written communication tasks.

What are CPA exam pretest questions?

Every exam includes pretest questions. These are questions that are used to collect data and scoring information for later use. The score that you get on pretest questions does not form part of the final score for your CPA exam.

Each section has 12 pretest Multiple-choice questions and one pretest Task-based simulation. The Business Environment and Concepts section also includes one pretest written communication task.

How can you tell a pretest question from a regular one? You can’t. So, it’s advisable to treat all the parts of the exam equally and try to answer each question as best as you can.

Is the CPA exam scoring automated or do humans score the exam?

The scoring for every section of the CPA exam except the written communication tasks is completely automated. A majority of the written communication responses are scored by a computer grading program that is closely monitored by human scorers.

The scoring process has many checks and balances built into it to ensure absolute fairness. For example, if a candidate falls short of the passing score by a small margin, the written communication portion of the exam is re-graded by human scorers.

The bottom line

The CPA exam is conducted in a meticulous and painstaking manner. A great deal of effort goes into ensuring that the questions for the exam are prepared and graded carefully.

Three highly reputed institutions are involved. These are the AICPA, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), and Prometric, a company that delivers the exam at its authorized centers.

However, this does not mean that it is easy to understand how well you have scored in the exam. In fact, the entire exam procedure is a complex system, a black box of sorts, and it can sometimes be hard to correlate your score with your performance in the exam. For example, you could have done well in the pretest questions, but these don’t count towards your final score.

What is the recourse that you have if you don’t think your score accurately reflects how well you did in the exam?

In this situation, you can opt for a score review or an appeal.

Score Review – this is not a re-grading of your exam. It is merely an “independent verification of your exam score.”

The review involves ascertaining that the correct answer key was used for the Multiple-choice questions and the Task-based simulations. As regards the written communication tasks, the review verifies that each of these was scored.

Appeal – an appeal is more complicated and is not available in every jurisdiction where the test is held. If you decide to appeal against the score that you have been given, you will be provided with the opportunity to view the Multiple-choice questions and the Task-based simulations to which you gave an incorrect response. You will be provided with the opportunity to submit comments online. The written communication tasks are excluded from the appeal process.

Is it worthwhile to opt for a score review or to go in for an appeal? In most instances, you would be better off simply retaking the exam. A vast majority of review requests and appeals are unsuccessful.


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