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Students writing exam in classroom setting.
From Pivot Magazine

An update on CPA Canada’s review of this year’s CFE

The accounting profession is built on integrity and professionalism. Those high standards are being applied in our review of the problems experienced during the writing of this year’s CFE.

Students writing exam in classroom setting.Today, the technology that we use to administer our exams has changed, yet the high stakes and raw nerves remain the same (Getty Images/JohnnyGreig)

Dedicated readers of this column will note that I have often written in the past about the transformative power of technology, with its balance of risks and rewards. Our profession has now experienced this reality firsthand. 

As I sit down to write this, in the aftermath of a Common Final Examination that went far from smoothly, my thoughts are first and foremost with those students who endured hours-long delays and frustrations with Wi-Fi or software at certain writing centres across the country.

As a result, across the CPA profession we have heard from hundreds of students about their challenges with the CFE examination in September. I have personally read and responded to many of these emails. 

As CPAs, we all remember the incredible stress of preparing for and writing our final examinations. In the moments between meetings coordinating our response to this year’s CFE disruptions, letters from our students have prompted personal reflections on my own final exam-writing experience. When I wrote in Nova Scotia, we were seated at long, wooden communal tables. The young man seated next to me was so nervous and trembling so violently that he knocked over a jug of water and soaked my exam papers.

Portrait of Joy Thomas, president and CEO of CPA CanadaJoy Thomas (Photograph by Matt Barnes)

Today, the technology that we use to administer our exams has changed, yet the high stakes and raw nerves remain the same. Advancements in technology have been key to our ability to grow nationwide, offering thousands of students the opportunity to take complex, standardized examinations in their local communities in a contemporary and convenient manner.

Of course, the September 2019 CFE was anything but convenient. The examination was disrupted by compounding technological challenges related to software, Wi-Fi and, in some cases, both. Though contingency plans are always in place for our examinations, the compounded problems were challenging. It is clear that more work is needed to mitigate risks of technology failure during examinations, and we are working with service providers as well as our provincial counterparts to do that.

In speaking with members, students, staff and others, one thing is clear: We all desire a fair and equitable solution and we all have a vested interest in upholding the high standards of our profession.

As many of you know, the CFE evaluation process is overseen by an independent Board of Examiners. Over the years, they have developed a robust system for taking into account extenuating circumstances that affect exam writers. Given what occurred this year, the evaluation process will also be supplemented by a third-party review. A leading psychometrician with expertise assessing how a fair outcome can be achieved has been retained. This information is being augmented by an independent technical review.

Now, as I’m writing this in early October, these processes are in their early stages. By the time you read this, my hope is that they will be well advanced. We recognize the desire for more information, and we have committed to continuing to keep students and members up to date. I encourage you to visit our website for the latest information on this matter.

Speaking with one of our stakeholders in recent weeks, I was told, “Don’t let this incident dissuade you from embracing technology.” I agree. We cannot return to an era of paper-and-pencil examinations. In 2020, we look forward to administering two Common Final Examinations, instead of the customary single sitting, and we know what must be accomplished before then.