The Evolution of the CPA Exam

by Michael A. Decker | Sep 02, 2020
Pennsylvania CPA Journal
Having spent 15 years of my career working in the testing industry, the last nine with the AICPA examinations team, I understand and appreciate the vital role assessments play in supporting their respective industries or professions.

The effectiveness and relevance of a licensure or any other form of exam is dependent upon the assessment’s ability to adapt and evolve over time. This certainly holds true for AICPA’s development of the Uniform CPA Examination (the CPA Exam). The CPA Exam’s importance to the profession has a long and storied history. Included within that history are a couple of significant milestones that have greatly contributed to the integrity of the profession and the value of the CPA credential.

One hundred years ago the AICPA, seeing the positive impact a uniform assessment would have on the profession, offered to develop and grade an exam on behalf of all state boards of accountancy. In June 1917, the state boards of Kansas, New Hampshire, and Oregon accepted the offer, setting the path for the remaining jurisdictions to embrace the CPA Exam that we know today. 

The CPA Exam provides assurance that newly licensed CPAs have demonstrated the relevant knowledge and skills necessary to protect the public interest. Over the years, the exam content, structure, and administration (the AICPA introduced computer-based testing in 2004) have evolved, but its continued alignment with the profession and the work of the newly licensed remains a hallmark. Current CPAs are among the strongest inspirations for future successful candidates. By reaching out and helping them understand the new exam format and testing goals, you will be helping them succeed in their professional pursuits and strengthening the CPA profession.

Keeping in Step 

The AICPA successfully launched an updated version of the CPA Exam on April 1, 2017. Since its introduction, more than 81,000 exam sections have been administered during the second testing window of 2017, including nearly 2,700 in Pennsylvania.

The launch of the revision followed a multiyear, in-depth practice analysis designed to ensure that the CPA Exam remains current, relevant, reliable, legally defensible, and supportive of the profession’s commitment to protecting the public interest. During our research, we gathered a wealth of information and input from public accounting, business and industry, academia, government, and regulatory bodies. The work included interviewing and surveying CPAs of various experience, reviewing accounting education programs, and producing an exposure draft that garnered hundreds of comments from those with a vested interest in the future of the profession. 

At the conclusion of the practice analysis, the CPA Exam retained the four sections of Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). Topics and content were revised or adjusted, but the most important change was a greater emphasis placed on the assessment of higher-order cognitive skills. The accounting profession and academic community strongly supported the emphasis on higher-order learning because these skills have become more essential to the roles of newly licensed CPAs. 

Can the CPA candidate think critically and solve a problem similar to one he or she may face in the workplace? Is the candidate able to review a particular business scenario and form a competent judgment or conclusion using appropriate accounting concepts?
The increased use of simulations throughout the CPA Exam (including within the BEC section for the first time) provides a robust way to gauge a candidate’s abilities. The case studies cover a range of skill levels, including AUD’s evaluation-level items that reinforce the significance of a CPA’s judgment in maintaining audit quality. The prominence of simulations and the challenging tasks they present are a clear sign of the importance placed on higher-order skills when it comes to the professional responsibilities of the newly licensed.

Think about what the newest CPAs are doing today, and compare that to what was expected 20 years ago. Changing market forces and technological advances require new entrants to the profession to perform more value-added services earlier on. CPAs new to the profession are taking on expanded and more complex roles from the start, which require certain essential skills to be used in tandem with core knowledge.

We heard from a candidate who said the new format is more closely related to his on-the-job experience. He noted that the increase in simulations was preferred because it allowed him to use accounting knowledge to work through the real-world problems the exam presented. 

Another candidate also commented that the new Document Review Simulation, where candidates are asked to edit a memo or other document, exemplifies what CPAs are asked to do in their jobs on a regular basis. 

Preparing for the Future

As the profession and the required skills of the newly licensed evolve, so too must the CPA Exam. Audit data analytics, the rise of blockchain, and other accounting and auditing changes continue to grow in importance, potentially affecting future versions of the exam. The AICPA monitors these trends, innovations, and technologies, and conducts research to support and maintain the CPA Exam’s alignment with professional practice.

Working cooperatively with AICPA’s assurance and advisory innovation team that created an Audit Data Analytics Guide due out later this fall, the AICPA CPA Examinations team is able to better understand the growing role big data plays in the profession. The CPA Examinations team is also developing relationships with leading educational institutions, such as Rutgers University and Villanova University, that have expanded programs into this area. Recently we met with Villanova’s accounting professors to learn more about the college’s program and partnership with KPMG.
Close relationships with the academic community and firms of all sizes also allow the CPA Examinations team to learn more about professional skepticism and how it is exhibited by newly licensed CPAs. Collected data helps enhance the ability of future exams to assess this critical skill. Additionally, the AICPA engages in research-based cooperative endeavors with accounting bodies globally that also yield benefits for future assessments. 

Just as important as what the CPA Exam tests and the methods by which candidates are tested is the actual exam experience. This is why there are ongoing investments in technology to improve the delivery of the exam. One such investment will launch in spring 2018, when the AICPA modernizes the presentation of the exam through user-friendly software that utilizes full, high-definition monitors. The intuitive software provides candidates with a more realistic experience that closely resembles the professional tools and work environment of a CPA, including the use of Excel spreadsheets. The software also offers the AICPA greater flexibility in maintaining the CPA Exam’s technology and content, as well as the implementation of future changes.

Support Makes a Difference

Every CPA candidate – past, present, and future – has the same challenge: passing the exam. Meeting this challenge requires preparation and a strong commitment; it requires a CPA Exam strategy. To lay the groundwork for success, a candidate’s exam strategy must encompass a number of key components, including understanding candidate requirements, knowing how and what the exam tests, forming a support network, and relying on CPA Exam partners for preparation resources and information.

Much of the information candidates require can be found by reviewing the websites of the three CPA Exam partners: the AICPA, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), and Prometric. PICPA’s CPA Exam & Licensing 
Requirements webpage ( provides valuable links all in one place. The partners provide everything a candidate needs, including testing and licensure requirements, sample tests for practicing, exam scoring details, appointment scheduling, and more. AICPA’s dedicated CPA Exam website ( also provides information related to the most essential component to the candidate strategy: knowing how and what the exam tests. 

The “how” and the “what” require comprehensive studying and a thorough understanding of the concepts presented in each section of the exam. While there’s a wealth of study resources available to candidates – from online materials and review courses to sample tests and study guides – there is no other preparation document more valuable than the Uniform CPA Examination Blueprints found on the AICPA website.

Published with the recently modified CPA Exam, the Uniform CPA Examination Blueprints offers candidates an in-depth, section-by-section guide for studying. Content that is eligible for testing is presented in organized charts with subcategories that break the information down into groups and topics, along with the skill level at which the content will be tested. In addition, the blueprints provide candidates with about 600 tasks representative of what they may be asked to do in relation to the content. While it’s not an exhaustive task list, it does offer greater clarity for preparation.

CPA Guidance Is Essential 

Exam study and preparation is a major commitment of time and effort, but it doesn’t mean the journey has to be a lone voyage. Sure, only the candidates themselves can sit for the exam, but a support network can play a critical role in the CPA Exam strategy. 
Earlier this year, the AICPA held focus groups with newer CPAs who struggled a bit during their journey. Some even took up to nine exam sections before attaining licensure. One might think, “I can’t believe they didn’t give up,” but comments from each of the CPAs presented a common theme: they had a support network to keep them going. 

Parents, spouses, siblings, boyfriends and girlfriends, friends, professors, and fellow CPA candidates – these are the individuals who were cited as helping them along. From encouraging words and financial assistance to guidance and group-study sessions, the networks provided a much-needed foundation for success. There was also one other common denominator mentioned by nearly all of these exam takers: their support networks included the unwavering backing of their employers, bosses, and colleagues, in most cases all of them CPAs.

It’s easy to see why CPAs need to be an essential part of a candidate’s support network. Whether you’re a veteran CPA or recent licensee, no one but you understands what candidates face as they go through the CPA journey. The dedication. The commitment. The sacrifice. And yes, sometimes the disappointment. You’ve experienced these firsthand, but you also understand the rewards of a CPA career. Active and retired CPAs are playing a role in fostering the next generation of CPAs, but it must be a profession-wide effort.
Past AICPA research shows that a pro-CPA workplace environment is the strongest driver for candidates pursuing the credential and eventually making it across the licensure finish line. When you look at your firm or organization, what is it doing to support newly hired employees eligible to pursue the CPA credential? Is a discussion and emphasis of the CPA license a part of your on-boarding process?

When new hires arrive, ensuring that they understand the value your organization places on the license is key. So, too, is knowing that they will receive your support when the time comes to prepare for the CPA Exam. Not every candidate has the luxury of sitting for the exam prior to starting their first job. In most cases, the candidate will need to juggle their studies, work obligations, and personal commitments. Having a network of support within the workplace could mean the difference between pursuing and not pursuing, or passing and dropping out. We’ve heard anecdotally of a few firms tracking candidate progress throughout the exam, with others designating a mentor to guide employees through the process.

A few helpful means of support cited by candidates include general office flexibility and financial support. Do you offer time off for studying, or do you reimburse for study materials or exam costs? If you have multiple candidates in your office, do you encourage group study and working toward the goal of licensure simultaneously?

Whether you have support mechanisms already in place or you’re looking to introduce them, there are a couple of simple, no-cost actions you can take in offices large and small. First, tout the value of the CPA license. This is a globally recognized credential with a lifetime of benefits, including a competitive edge, job satisfaction and security, strong earnings potential, and opportunity for career growth and advancement. The latter can be further supported by highlighting how attaining the CPA license will benefit growth within your own organization.

As mentioned earlier, promote the need for your candidates to have a CPA Exam strategy. Preparation is fundamental to a successful exam journey, and your guidance is a big part of it. Advise candidates to truly get to know the CPA Exam, and to understand the content and concepts tested, learn state licensure requirements, manage their time over the 18-month exam period, look to the CPA Exam partners (AICPA, NASBA, and Prometric) for reliable information and resources, and, above all, form a support network. This is where fellow CPAs, a candidate’s friends and family, and others can make the biggest difference to help nurture the next generation of CPAs entering the profession.

Michael A. Decker is vice president, examinations for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants in Ewing, N.J. He can be reached at
Thousands of CPE Courses  

With the highest quality CPE and thousands of options for online, self-study, and in-person learning, PICPA's CPE meets all of your professional education needs.

Search Courses
Read It Your Way

digital edition

Read the latest edition of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal via the web or digital edition. 

Read Now
Member Benefit

The Pennsylvania CPA Journal is a PICPA member benefit. Receive quarterly editions of the Journal delivered to your doorstep.