A Preliminary Response to the Computer-Based CPA Exam Education

By Linda B. Specht and Petrea K. Sandlin

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NOVEMBER 2006 - In April 2004, the first computer-based CPA exam was administered. The AICPA had earlier announced that it would convert from a paper-based exam to a computer-based format to keep pace with changes in the business world. Both the format of the exam and the way it is administered have changed. The most important changes, however, have been in the exam’s content and in its testing of the skills needed by entry-level CPAs.

The AICPA has identified the skills “necessary for protection of the public interest” as the following: the ability to perform research and analyze information; the ability to communicate; and the ability to exercise judgment and understanding. To ensure that candidates have these skills, the new exam employs several testing devices, including simulations and case studies. Schools must prepare their students for the exam and for their professional careers by requiring them to do online research, analyze case studies, and develop written communication skills.

An online questionnaire was sent to the chairs and deans of university accounting programs listed in Prentice Hall’s Accounting Faculty Directory just prior to the first computer-based CPA exam. The survey included a listing of course content areas and learning activities designed to enhance student abilities as tested by the revised exam. Educators were asked the extent to which they had incorporated the listed subject matter or activities into their courses and whether this had changed in response to the new CPA exam content and requirements.

Research Methods

The new CPA exam is intended to test candidates’ abilities to perform the type of research that might be required of a CPA. The first set of questions on the survey asked about educators’ use of learning activities designed to improve student research skills. The questions addressed the use of research methods and case studies (deemed “real-world” scenarios). Of particular interest was the use of case studies “requiring student research and analysis” or “the exercise of professional judgment.” The survey found that students were being instructed in the use of research methods to some extent by 72% of educators, and online research in accounting courses was required to some extent by 74% of educators. In addition, a large majority (83%) of accounting programs used case studies requiring student research and analysis as well as the exercise of personal judgment. Only 24%, however, assigned daily projects requiring research, and only 52% assigned a major research project.

Were these changes from prior practice? Educators were asked the extent to which they had changed their course requirements in response to the format and content of the new CPA exam. The largest increase was in research methods, with 46% of educators reporting increased focus on student use of research methods, and 40% reporting an increased focus on online research as well as student research and analysis.

Communication Skills

A second set of skills required of CPA candidates revolves around the ability to communicate. The AICPA has defined this as the ability to effectively elicit or express information through written or oral means. As any professional would agree, these skills are often exercised in a time-pressured work environment. The survey addressed the types of learning activities that might help students develop communication skills and the ability to exercise those skills under time pressure. Specific questions asked about the use of student presentations, the preparation of written business communications, and the preparation of spreadsheets.

Because work assignments are usually time-sensitive and the CPA exam itself is timed, questions were asked about the use of timed in-class assignments. Sixty-six percent of educators required in-class student presentations, 87% required the preparation of spreadsheets, and 68% assigned business communication papers. Only 40% of educators used timed in-class assignments.

Current Pronouncements

A third set of questions related to a candidate’s ability to analyze and use information from various types of business pronouncements. The survey asked if accounting courses used SEC filings, annual reports, authoritative pronouncements, and current business or accounting periodicals. In general, the findings revealed that the majority of programs do use these types of materials.

Types of Schools Surveyed

Of the 66 schools that completed the survey, 46 were public colleges and universities and 20 were private institutions; 43 schools were AACSB-accredited (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), while 23 were not. In addition, graduate accounting programs were reported at 35 of the schools; 26 were at AACSB-accredited schools and nine were at non-AACSB schools.

The responses were analyzed to determine if there were significant differences in how different types of schools and accounting programs were responding to the computer-based CPA exam. An analysis of the results indicated that AACSB-accredited programs (as compared to non-AACSB programs) added more business communication assignments and made more use of professional periodicals. Similarly, public universities (as compared to private universities) have increased their use of case studies for purposes of research and analysis, which might better prepare students for the testing of higher-level cognitive skills.

A Changing Environment

The results of this study reveal that some accounting programs did change their curricula as they prepared for the first computer-based CPA exam. While these changes were made in only a few areas, they indicate that restructuring the CPA exam has affected what is being taught in colleges and universities. Even though AACSB-accredited programs and those at public universities might be deemed to have greater resources, the changes they are making are attainable by all institutions, whether public or private, large or small. The use of case studies, business communication assignments, and business and accounting periodicals is within the reach of accounting educators at all institutions.

Several questions remain unanswered. The central one is the need to revisit those institutions to determine whether they have continued to refine their curricula. Ultimately, the accounting profession and the business world are dynamic, changing environments. Education must also continue to change in order to prepare its students for the challenges of the CPA exam and the professional work to follow.

Linda B. Specht, JD, CPA, and Petrea K. Sandlin, PhD, are both associate professors at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas.





















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