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NASBA Is (Still) Considering Remote CPA Exam Testing Even With Virus Concerns Waning

a clean, minimalist home office space

There are big changes coming to the CPA exam in the future, but one thing that hasn’t changed much since 2004 is the process of testing at Prometric. When the exam went computerized at the turn of the century, gone were the massive gymnasiums and chicken tables of yore and in came the soul-crushing sterility of Prometric centers. Wait. Chicken tables? Yes, chicken tables. From a 2017 Journal of Accountancy article on how taking the exam has changed over the decades:

The Ohio State Fair is recognized as one of the most celebrated state fairs in the country. Many people remember visiting the fair to see acts such as Bob Hope and famous rock bands. However, many may not know that aspiring Ohio CPAs took the CPA Exam at the Ohio state fairgrounds, specifically on tables in the buildings used for showing prize-winning chickens. When I took the exam in November 1981, we were issued cardboard to place under our exam materials so our No. 2 pencils wouldn’t go through the paper into grooves in the table created by chicken and rooster claws.

Suddenly a windowless room at Prometric doesn’t sound so bad, eh?

We first discussed the possibility of remote CPA exam testing in September 2020, at which time online testing was being considered as a sort of just-in-case should that pesky Rona thing get any worse. Man, if only we’d known then … . When Prometric shut down completely due to coronavirus in early 2020, suddenly the benevolent overlords of the CPA exam had to ask themselves for the first time in history, “What happens if no one can take the exam?” After all, there wasn’t much anyone could do about site closures. It’s not like Prometric was going to go against government guidelines and open its doors just because Barry Melancon wrote a strongly-worded letter about the CPA shortage.

This was the initial discussion about remote testing as a backup plan in the Summer 2020 NASBA State Board report:

The significance of disaster planning has been underscored by the COVID-19 restrictions. Testing options are one of the elements NASBA has been studying as it considers worst-case scenarios, NASBA Executive Vice President and COO Colleen Conrad told the Regional Meetings. Remote proctoring, which would open the possibility of candidates testing from home, is now being studied by NASBA’s Computer-Based Testing Committee and the Executive Directors Committee as a backup plan should testing centers be unable to reopen at some future time.

While Ms. Conrad praised Prometric for their handling of closings and openings of test centers during the pandemic this spring, the question remains: What would happen if the virus comes back in the fall and the centers need to stay closed? “We need a backup,” she said. NASBA and the AICPA are discussing what would be necessary to have a remote proctoring alternative, which is not covered in the current contract with Prometric. “We would want to be sure the Boards are comfortable with it,” Ms. Conrad stated.

In February 2021, NASBA President and CEO Ken Bishop gave remote testing a nod in his President’s Memo, floating the idea while also acknowledging that some stakeholders are — rightfully — worried about the risks that come with letting people take a professional licensing exam at home that has, up until now, been administered under the watchful eye of Prometric proctors in secure rooms:

We realized in late February 2020 that we had to consider an alternative emergency delivery method for the Uniform CPA Examination. History has shown us that candidates must be provided an opportunity to test when they are best prepared. Failure to do so results in lower pass rates and dropouts from the pipeline. NASBA, AICPA and Prometric began exploring a remote testing alternative for the Uniform CPA Examination, and progress on potential implementation has been made.

In the year since that memo, we sort of forgot about it. Remote testing seemed like a worst-case Plan Z, not something they might actually deploy if and when things got back to normal. Prometric has (mostly) worked through the backlog caused by shuttering testing centers early in the pandemic, automatically granted NTS extensions have long since ended, and once vaccines started rolling out, the world at large took a giant step toward returning to normal. Or whatever passes as normal these days, anyway. It started to look like remote testing wouldn’t be needed so why waste any time wringing hands over it?

Well in this list of FAQ solicited from NASBA social media followers and published February 24, 2022, we see remote testing has gotten a small little shout-out which, to me, signals this as a serious possibility. Not just a “what if a virus shuts the entire world down again” backup plan but an actual possibility.

What are the chances that NASBA would consider online testing? NASBA, the AICPA, and Prometric are looking at the possibilities of offering the CPA Exam remotely in the future. However, there are security and software issues that must be addressed in order to protect the Exam.

Now I realize that just a few paragraphs ago I copy-pasted a passage that says basically the same thing. But there’s a big difference between “emergency disaster planning” and a fairly dry sentence about looking at the possibilities. There are 13 questions on the above-linked FAQ, and I doubt NASBA would waste precious bandwidth on including a question like that if it wasn’t something they were seriously considering. We know that Prometric already has the capability to offer remote exams, it’s just a matter of working out the specifics and signing new contracts with them and getting the approval of all interested parties (namely state boards). Easier said than done, I know.

I wouldn’t expect any movement on this anytime soon. After all, we’ve been talking about them talking about it for two years now. NASBA has made it abundantly clear that their focus right now is on “bringing CPA Evolution to fruition” so they’ll be tied up well into 2024. That said, I think it’s something worth watching; they sound a bit serious about actually doing this. So see you a year from now to talk about an update on them talking about it should they bring it up again.

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