How to Understand the CPA Exam Grading System (Is It Curved)?

Candidates are intrigued by how the CPA Exam grading is done. Here is my understanding of the CPA exam scoring mechanism:

Here is the text version for those who prefer to read:

A Score of 75 Doesn’t Mean 75% Correct

First of all, you should know that the score you get is not equal to the percentage of correct answers in the exam. For example, if you get a 75, it does NOT mean that you get 75% correct.

Your score is calculated based on a percentile, and the examiners utilize a fancy system to calculate all these. Here is a summary of how it works in layman terms:

CPA Exam Grading in Layman Terms

1. In the typical CPA exam, there is a certain number of “pre-test” questions. These questions look exactly the same as others (i.e. candidates can never know) but they are not graded for that specific exam.
2. Based on the percentage of correctness for each question, these pre-test questions are assigned a point value to it: the more difficult it is, the higher point value it gets. The easier questions will fall into the “medium-level” testlets, and harder ones into the “difficult” testlets.
3. The multiple choice questions are adaptive. Candidates will be given the medium-level or difficult testlet depending on how they do in the previous testlet.
4. As the difficult questions have higher point value, even if candidates get more wrong answers in the difficult testlets, they may still be better off than those who “got stuck” in the medium-level testlet.

Believe it or not, essays are now graded by computer instead of human. The software looks for elements a human would score on, such as organization, development, and usage of language.

If the gold standard is what a trained human scorer would score, you gather a relatively large sample—around 1,000 to 1,200 responses scored by people—then you use a program to build a mathematical model that will take elements of those papers and predict human scores and validate that model using data from real candidates and show the software is scoring the way the humans would score it,”

— John Mattar, the AICPA Examinations Team’s director–Psychometrics & Research

If your BEC score is very close to the passing mark (e.g. 74, 75 and 76), then a human grader will take a look at your essay.

Please refer to this detailed explanation written by the AICPA team and published in Journal of Accountancy.

What It Means to You

1. Although there is not a “curve” and that the examiners do not subjectively manipulate the test and passing rate, the grading system has an inherent curve built into it.
2. It also means that if you feel like getting half the questions wrong, and it may as well be the case, you may still pass because the difficult questions get more weight.

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• Geormaina says:

I did Reg last week and encountered an installment problem in the sim section. I did it half way but did well in the other section section. Just wondering what are my chances of passing with one sim out of the equation. Could they toose it if was poorly performed by majority of candindates.

• Stephanie says:

Hi Geormaina,
Actually I have read about a very similar situation in one of the CPA exam forums before. While it is not common it does happen. I believe the person who encountered the same issue managed to pass, so that could be a relief for you. I think if you do well in other parts of the exam, you will be ok.

Another thing you can do is to call up CPA examination services and discuss the problem with them. From what I heard they aren’t really that helpful in this respect, but there is nothing to lose for you to contact them and see if there is anything they can do about it.

Also, there is a score review and repeal process what you can go through if in case you get an unsatisfactory score and believe it is due to the computer problem. But I read somewhere in the AICPA website and the statistics show that only a very tiny % of people are successful in the repeal. So probably doesn’t worth the effort and money (yes, there is a fee). But just to let you know this is something you can also consider.

Anyway, if you did well you should be ok! Try not to worry too much. Please let me know the results when you get it! Stephanie

• Angela says:

Hi Stephanie,

Thank you for keep sending informative email. I’m just curious with the essay part. Is it like 10% of the subject per exam? I am worried about the auditing theory. I think it is hard if they put too many cases and needs to be answered through essays. Plus, I cannot go back because its not a paper and pen test. I might waste many minutes to figure out what to write.

Thanks!