The duties of certified public accountants have always been in flux. Now, for the first time in years, the Uniform CPA Examination will change with them.
As the only licensed qualification for the accounting profession, the exam is a requirement for the majority of accounting jobs. Tens of thousands sit for it every year. But recently, many CPAs have called for the exam to be updated as its application and relevancy to their everyday responsibilities seemed to be fading.
Testing the waters
In June, the Journal of Accountancy reported that the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Board of Examiners was assessing plans to change the evaluation of higher-order skills on the Uniform CPA Examination following feedback from 310 respondents in the field. Accountants, through surveys and meetings with the board, pushed for increased testing of skills like analytical ability, critical thinking, professional skepticism and problem-solving.
Additional calls came to officially implement Microsoft Excel as the platform used in the exam given its popularity within the profession, to expand the number of months in which the test is administered (March, June, September and December are currently unavailable) and to extend from 18 to 24 months the amount of time for completing the exam after passing the first section.
Evolving for the times
Recent word from the AICPA confirms that June’s discussions were more than just exploratory. Rick Niswander, East Carolina University’s vice chancellor and chairman of the AICPA Board of Examiners, was quoted by the Journal of Accountancy as acknowledging that “Tasks that an entry-level CPA may have done in the past are now either largely mechanized through electronic mediums” or performed by other professions. Niswander delivered that message to the AICPA governing council in October.
The organization’s proposals for keeping the Uniform CPA Examination relevant were collected in an exposure draft which addressed the changing role of accountants in the modern business world and proposed substantial changes to the structure of the exam, many of them representing suggestions put on the table during June’s CPA feedback sessions.
A look at the AICPA’s new exam measures indicates that while technical skills haven’t become any less important, higher-order cognitive abilities have become more essential.
The four cognitive skills the surveyed accountants focused on in June, primarily critical thinking, will receive enhanced attention. The exam’s structure remains largely the same. Its existing sections – Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting and Regulation – will stay, though they will now come with a blueprint which describes the skills and knowledge being tested and why they’re relevant to a CPA’s responsibilities.
“You’re going to see an exam that is more representative of what you will do when you get out and work for a CPA firm or work for a company,” said Niswander.
“CPAs are being asked to do more than ever before.”
It is for that reason research skills are getting increased attention. As tax laws seemingly become ever more complicated, CPAs must have the ability to find the correct information quickly and efficiently while using the right tools. At the same time, their knowledge must extend beyond the world of accounting. The new exam places additional emphasis on comprehension of the business world as a method for preparing newly licensed CPAs to enter a workforce in which they are being asked to do more than they ever have before.
“Newly licensed CPAs have needed to have those skills for years and years and years,” Niswander told the Journal. “It’s just that the demand for having more of those skills has increased.”
Those taking the new exam in 2017 will have more task-based simulations rather than the old exam’s many multiple-choice questions. The length of the exam also changes, from 14 to 16 hours, with four hours for each of the four sections.