The CPA exam and certification it leads to remains the premier certification for accountants in public practice. And while passing the exam still confers the same rights, privileges, and qualification indicators it has since it was first offered in 1917 (AICPA), it has repeatedly evolved to match the times. It has moved from a two-and-a-half–day, five-part, pencil-and-paper test offered biannually; to individual section testing; to the introduction of a new part, BEC (Business Environment and Concepts); and to computer-based examinations in sponsored testing centers. Also, beginning this past July, the exam has moved to continuous testing without blackout periods.

These changes have improved the overall quality of the testing experience, met future accountants where they are and have made the profession better as a result. The AICPA, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), and the organization that they partner with to administer the actual testing, Prometric, should be commended for their willingness to adapt as circumstances have mandated. They have met the challenges of the past and moved the exam and licensure process forward. Now it is time for them to meet the challenges of the present and adopt remote testing for the CPA exam as soon as possible.

Impact of COVID-19

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the U.S. economy and society. Research by the New York Times shows that during the initial wave of the pandemic 95% of the country was under some form of stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. Many primary school and university classes are still being administered remotely via Zoom and other digital video conferencing platforms. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions to maintain operations as normally as possible. For the AICPA, NASBA, and Prometric (likely through their ProProctor remote assessment platform), that solution is administering the CPA exam remotely online. Other leading certifications have already taken this substantial, but necessary, step. The Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA), which administers the certification exams for Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), Certified in Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT), Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC), and Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), is currently offering their suite of exams remotely, as well as the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) exam. The premier professional organization in human resources, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), began offering remote proctoring of the SHRM Certification in June. In this author’s view, the CPA exam should join the ranks of these other professional organizations and be offered by remote testing.

The move to remote testing, while challenging, will benefit all stakeholders to the exam: candidates, universities, and the profession. Exam candidates will have certainty. While exam centers have been closed, students have had to suspend studying without knowing when their section will become available again. The material they are studying now may be updated by the time centers reopen at sufficient capacity, forcing them to restart the studying process and potentially causing them to disengage from the process. Moving online will give candidates certainty in their material, particularly if the virus leads to the reemergence of testing center closures. Universities will also benefit from remote testing; many universities and accounting classes incorporate the CPA exam into their course curriculum. Students want to know the material they are learning will be used in their jobs and included on the exam. Teachers give extra credit or require students to register for the exam as part of their curriculum. Online testing will allow universities to continue preparing the next generation of CPAs and provide certainty to students who have had their education experience upended.

Lastly, the profession will continue to have a steady pool of future CPAs ready to enter the workforce; the longer that candidates are required to delay the exam as testing centers remain closed, the closer they approach a return to normal work-life and the approaching busy seasons. Many potential candidates are currently at home with excess capacity. The profession has a captive audience well-positioned to study and pass the exam while they wait for a return to regular operations. Remote testing would also reduce the risks that potential candidates take other jobs or move into roles as a result of job cuts, furloughs, or changes in employment—moving them away from the accounting profession and away from the exam. A move to online testing provides certainty to candidates, direction for universities, and increased opportunities within the profession.

Opening the Door

While remote testing could initially be instituted as a temporary, emergency solution, it may open the door to permanently improve access to the exam for more geographically remote candidates, candidates with disabilities, and candidates in areas that may have to continue or return to varying forms of stay-at-home orders to protect their safety and well-being. It also provides evidence to our candidates that the accounting profession is flexible, responsive, and a leader in testing technology.

The move to remote testing will not occur without its challenges and should not be taken lightly. As an active CPA, university professor, and vice president at an exam preparatory company, I am concerned about students with poor or limited internet access being left out, maintaining quality control over the testing materials and environment, and preventing participants from cheating on the exam. It is likely the AICPA and NASBA have similar concerns; any worries, however, should not outweigh the costs of inaction.

Other exam providers have shown it is possible to provide a safe, secure, and controlled exam environment within the confines of a candidate’s home or place of business. The current CPA exam administrator, Prometric, has a remote testing platform, ProProctor, that allows for complete live monitoring of the exam with assigned security agents, 360-degree environmental readiness checks (i.e., reviews of the testing environment in a home or office), the ability to record and review the exam, and candidate device checks. To ensure the integrity of the certification that the CPA exam confers, the testing partners can go further and require all, or some combination of, best practices used in other exams and testing platforms (e.g., the CFE exam, Blackboard, Respondus Lockdown Browser and Monitor):

  • Use of facial recognition or other software to match an exam candidate in their remote environment to the photo submitted with their application
  • Use of retina scanners or remote fingerprint readers to verify a candidate’s identity
  • Requirement that the exam candidate to show their government-approved photo identification to the web camera for verification from a live agent in real time
  • Unique one-time PIN sent to the candidate’s cell phone directly prior to beginning the exam; the candidate would then show the phone being powered down after entering the PIN
  • Remote ability to cease or halt the exam if the candidate is observed to be cheating or attempting to copy confidential exam content
  • Designated timed breaks between sections, similar to the current testing environment in Prometric testing centers. Each break should be followed by another identification verification.

In addition, accommodations to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can be offered remotely via software programs. Remote proctoring could still utilize screen reading software, enhanced-size graphics and text, speech recognition software, and additional time, among other accommodations.

An Imperfect Solution

I recognize these potential solutions and changes are a significant shift from the current exam administration and may not solve all the concerns of the profession or the organizations supporting it. Nevertheless, legacy approaches should not stand in the way of innovation and progress. Moving the exam online and offering remote proctoring will give students options as they attempt to study, allow exam candidates the flexibility demanded in these difficult times, and prepare the profession for future setbacks and disruptions, regardless of their cause.

Remote testing is an imperfect solution for an imperfect time. CPA exam certification has evolved to match the times before. It is time for the exam to meet the moment again and for exam providers to offer candidates the ability to sit for the exam safely and remotely.

John “Jack” Castonguay, PhD, CPA (Va.), is an assistant professor of accounting at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., and a vice president of strategic content development for Knowfully Learning Group, the parent company of Surgent CPA Review.