by Seth Fineberg

New York -- November marks the last time that the paper version of the Uniform CPA Exam will be administered to future CPAs, and while much progress has been made to gear up for the computerized exam’s April 5, 2004, launch, some concerns linger.

Exam course providers, educators and state boards of accountancy have spent the better part of this year expressing their views to the American Institute of CPAs, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy and test administrator Prometric, a Thomson business.

Among their most vexing issues is the availability of study materials -- or, rather, the lack of them.

Quite simply, some feel that the AICPA and the Financial Accounting Standards Board have significantly improved their efforts to make available key exam information for students and educators to study and prepare for the electronic exam. However, there are others who are not -- and may never be -- completely satisfied with the process.

Bobbi Barnhill, executive director of the South Dakota State Board of Accountancy, has the charge of administering the exam in her state. And much like some exam course providers, she does not feel that students -- particularly those at smaller universities -- have appropriate access to the materials that they need for the exam.

“As we do pre-testing, we are seeing students here and across the plains states at smaller universities that don’t have access to certain exam materials like those on professional standards,” Barnhill said. “This is a uniform licensing exam, and when it was paper, everyone was on the same level. Now there are going to be things on the exam that some people have been exposed to and some have not. That is disturbing.”

Barnhill and others claim that many small universities simply can’t afford access to certain key study materials.

“Access to this [professional standards] material is $1,185 for colleges and $885 in renewal fees for 20 to 25 concurrent users. That doesn’t include FASB material -- which is finally free online -- but it doesn’t include tax code material. It just seems that it’s all focused on the larger schools and providing them with things they can afford,” she said.

The FASB materials were made free on the standard-setting organization’s Web site late this summer, though some complain that they are only available in one PDF file and are not easily searchable. Users still must pay for access to the latest highlighted revised standards.

Book publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc. also has CPA exam review books for sale. The 2003 four-volume set sells for $182.

Exam sections include audit and attestation, financial accounting and reporting, regulations, and business environment and concepts -- the newest portion of the exam. In April 2004, each section of the exam -- except for the new business environment and concepts portion -- initially will contain two simulations. The remaining exam sections are regulations, audit and attest and financial accounting and reporting.

There are those exam prep-course providers that still feel that the switch to a new exam has occurred too quickly, and that the AICPA has tried to do too much at once. This includes not only changing to a new format, but also creating simulations; re-arranging the contents of the exam with entirely new areas on economics, finance, and technology; and creating a situation where some people may get harder questions than others.

Ben Martella, president and chief operating officer of Sedona, Ariz.-based prep course provider Efficient Learning Systems Inc., believes that there has been some improvement in providing students with the materials that they need, but he still sees a need for more work to be done.

This past spring, Martella spearheaded efforts to work with the AICPA for the development of practice simulations for all prep course providers and educators. These efforts fell flat because the AICPA elected not to pursue this course of action.

“Frankly, what I’m hoping at this point is that, once we go through an exam cycle, we can revisit this idea about licensing the simulation engine to the providers,” he said. “Many agree that this is a piece of intellectual property controlled by the AICPA, and there is little competitive advantage we can provide from trying to reverse-engineer this property and build it into our products. We’d rather have equal and public access to the material.”

Martella is heartened by the clarification of contents for the BEC section of the exam, and the availability of additional materials on the AICPA exam Web site.

Details about the structure, length, content, skills definitions and content weighting are currently available on the CPA exam Web site (www.cpa-exam.org/cpa/computer.html).

Some prep course providers who once showed dissension with the direction that the new exam was headed in have since changed their attitude. Debra Hopkins, director of the Northern Illinois University CPA Review is one of them, and she feels that the AICPA has finally heard the distress call of many prep course providers.

“I think we are finally moving toward a place where everyone knows what’s going on and where faculty and students are starting to feel more comfortable,” Hopkins said. “I was once worried that students or colleges with little or no money would have access to materials and the AICPA has stepped up to that plate. When you meet with students now they are ready and not afraid to take the exam.”

The AICPA realizes that it still has some work to do before the first electronic exam is issued in April, but it’s confident in the process thus far.

Since April, when many exam course providers walked away from an AICPA meeting with less than they had hoped for, the institute has launched and updated its online tutorial; started a Webcast series geared toward informing students and educators about the exam; and conducted testing on the electronic exam system.

Also, in January, there will be access to practice samples of the exam where anyone can download a packet of information and go through a set of multiple-choice questions to help candidates better understand the exam.

“Our goal is to continue to update educators and students with the information they need, and I think we are doing a fairly good job of it so far,” said Greg Johnson, director of examinations at the AICPA. “There have been some questions like those about the BEC section and we have since issued clarification on that.”

Johnson was also pleased with the attention that the Webcasts have received. In October, there was one geared toward educators that garnered 1,200 registrants. He said that there is another in November aimed at employers and two more in February and March for exam candidates that will cover “many of the basic issues of the exam.”

“Primarily, I think we are in a good place in terms of system development, we all have done a sign-off on the system and are continuing to do testing,” Johnson said. “We are doing pilot testing this month as well, where a set of live CPA candidates who have taken the [paper] exam recently can come in and take a section of the new exam. This provides us assurance that we won’t have any unexpected bumps.”

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