Major law firm, ‘leading psychometrician’ brought in to review accounting exam problems
An independent review to get to the bottom of what went wrong during a challenging three-day certification exam for aspiring chartered accountants across Canada is being led by national law firm Borden Ladner Gervais.
Technical problems involving software and WiFi connectivity plagued the Common Final Examination (CFE) sitting this month, prompting CPA Canada to last week announce plans to call in an outside expert with a mandate that includes evaluating the “integrity and reliability” of the 2019 exam process.
On Thursday, CPA Canada confirmed it has hired BLG for the review. The law firm, which has conducted past independent reviews in areas including insurance and aboriginal policy, has in turn retained a “leading technical expert” to explore software and WiFi problems as well as “a leading psychometrician with expertise assessing how a fair outcome can be achieved when such issues occur,” CPA Canada said in a statement to the Financial Post.
In the days that followed the exam, which tests would-be chartered accountants on their ability to analyze and handle complex cases, message boards on sites such as Reddit filled with stories from anonymous candidates about their largely unhappy experiences. One poster said it was like the “Fyre Festival for accountants” in a memorable reference to the failed music festival in the Bahamas that promised luxury accommodations and gourmet food but delivered tents and cheese sandwiches.
In an email sent this week to CPA candidates in Western Canada who were scheduled to write upcoming exams in preparation for the next Common Final Examination, CPA Canada said it was planning “risk mitigation strategies” for those qualifying assessments.
These include providing additional WiFi capacity in all exam-writing centres, having WiFi-enabled USB sticks on hand in case of router failure, deploying extra IT support, and giving access to reference materials through a dedicated URL, according to the email.
On Thursday, CPA Canada confirmed to the Financial Post that at least some of those strategies — including doubling the number of proctors, adding extra WiFi capacity and the dedicated URL — were in place during the administration of an exam written this week for the CPA Professional Education Program.
Notably, the exam was also written without the use of the CPA’s Surpass software — flagged as the culprit in a number of online complaints about the CFE exam — with students instead filling out answers in Microsoft Word and Excel.
In the email to candidates, CPA Canada also said it was following up on the glitches, gathering a “comprehensive inventory of all the challenges that were encountered (with the CFE) on a centre-by-centre basis” and undertaking an internal technical review of both software and internet and (WiFi) issues.
CPA Canada is gathering ‘comprehensive inventory of all the challenges encountered on a centre-by-centre basis’
The issues during the final exam led to reactions from across Canada, with many candidates worried about how their exams will stack up against those whose exam-taking circumstances were different.
For example, some exam-takers in Western Canada complained that they were not able to access key resources online that were available to other test takers, including a crucial accounting handbook that provides guidance for which questions and issues should be addressed when analyzing cases.
Meanwhile, writers in Ontario complained about computers temporarily freezing, and crashes that either directly affected their progress or created distracting conditions around them. One candidate who wrote in Ottawa told the Financial Post this week that there was also concern that writers in Western Canada might have had access to online chatter about the exam’s contents when their start times were delayed.
Speaking to the Financial Post this week on condition that his name would not be used since he is still awaiting his results, he said details of what had been on the exam were posted on Reddit after candidates left the Ottawa exam centre sometime between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
“My main concern is that students (West of Ontario) would (possibly) have been able to go online and access social media and more importantly, Reddit, before they started their exam and after our exam was complete,” he said.
In an interview last week, a candidate who wrote the final exam in Victoria said it was delayed by three hours on the second day, and candidates were ultimately told to use their smartphones as “hotspots” to provide Internet access to required materials. This gave them access to other internet sites as well, the candidate said in the interview last week, adding that he could have cheated but didn’t.
“We know how eager the students are for answers and we are proceeding as quickly as possible,” a CPA Canada spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “However, our priority is ensuring that the outcome is fair and equitable and that the review is thorough so there is no specific timeline,” .
Candidates are given three lifetime opportunities to pass the Common Final Examination, which has made the outcome of the review of this year’s exam process even more pressing for some of the more than 8,000 candidates who participated.
CPA Canada confirmed, however, that an additional attempt can be allowed under “extenuating circumstances.”