More than 8,000 aspiring chartered professional accountants will have to wait until next year to find out if they have received their CPA designation, putting their professional lives on hold after technology problems caused hours-long delays in some parts of the country during September’s gruelling three-day national final examination.
Instead of this month as usual, CPA Canada says they are aiming to return the results of the common final examination, known as the CFE, sometime in January.
The revised timeline — due in part to “the extent of the disruptions to this year’s examination” that included issues with both software and WiFi connectivity — isn’t sitting well with some candidates who voiced frustration in online forums and interviews with the Financial Post.
“Most accountants would expect a raise on receiving their CFE results, so there’s a real economic cost for us every month it’s delayed,” said one candidate who wrote the exam in Ottawa.
“It also makes us put our life on hold,” the candidate told the Post, adding that the day results arrive typically “becomes an anniversary date for future promotions and increases.”
Like others who spoke to the Post, the candidates who took the problem-plagued common final exam between Sept. 11 and 13 requested anonymity out of concern that speaking out could have an impact on their results.
The high-stakes Common Final Examination where candidates must analyze a series of complex accounting cases was memorably dubbed a “Fyre Festival for accountants” in an online posting on a candidates’ forum. The tongue-in-cheek reference was to 2017’s well-publicized music festival fiasco in the Bahamas where cheese sandwiches were served instead of the promised gourmet meals and makeshift tents were provided in lieu of luxury accommodations.
Most accountants would expect a raise on receiving their CFE results, so there’s a real economic cost for us every month it’s delayed
According to online postings and interviews with several candidates, the problems during the three-day exam sitting ranged from interruptions and distractions as computer programs froze or crashed in Ottawa to a five-hour delay and no access to required online tax and accounting resource materials in Edmonton.
In Victoria, candidates were ultimately told to use their mobile phones to create “hotspots” that gave them unfettered access to the internet, according to one candidate. He said this provided the potential to cheat by accessing sites that were prohibited and would not be available to other exam writers across the country.
A candidate in Ottawa told the Post that the long delays in Western Canada could have given test takers who had internet access a significant advantage because Eastern Canadian candidates were posting information about what was on the exam in online forums before the Edmonton assessment finally got under way.
While many candidates are now anxious to move on with their professional lives, some said the “parallel processes” established by CPA Canada to mark exams while law Borden Ladner Gervais LLP is conducting an independent probe of what went wrong has raised concerns they will be adjudicated before CPA Canada can fully address — and make accommodations for — software and other tech problems that varied across the country.
“It’s… a waste of money to pay people to mark exams that the legal advisors will (possibly) conclude should be thrown out,” said the candidate who wrote the final examination in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, candidates who took the test in Vancouver and Edmonton, where students were hit with one of the longest delays on the second day of the final exam sitting, told the Financial Post that September’s final cross-country examination wasn’t the first time many had experienced problems while being evaluated by CPA Canada or its regional educational authorities.
It’s… a waste of money to pay people to mark exams that the legal advisors will (possibly) conclude should be thrown out
An aspiring CPA in Edmonton said he had experienced repeated technology problems in the lead-up to the final examination, and had complained through forums, IT interactions, and a formal candidate advocacy group.
“They run four (preparatory and final) exam sessions a year. They had issues a year ago in September, then they had issues again in December,” the CPA candidate said.
“Each time they tried it, there were issues with it.”
Last December — nearly a year ago — the majority of students who wrote one of the CPA’s Professional Education Program (PEP) lead-up exams in Western Canada experienced computer “freezing” issues, according to correspondence provided by another candidate and viewed by the Financial Post.
The email sent to candidates last February by the CPA Western School of Business, which oversees accounting candidates in Canada’s western provinces, said CPA Canada “did not anticipate the level and quantity of technical issues that candidates experienced” as a new software was being rolled out. However, the correspondence assured candidates that the “freezing issue that affected a majority of candidates” in December had been fixed.
CPA Canada acknowledges there were issues after it began using a new software program called Surpass in September of 2018, and that the software — flagged as a culprit in a number of online complaints about the three-day exam the following September — was not used in the next set of qualifying exams in October. Instead of using Surpass, students filled out answers using Microsoft Word and Excel.
Asked why the decision was made to use the software during what turned out to be a problem-plagued final examination in September this year, Tobin Lambie, CPA Canada’s director of communications, said earlier computer freezing issues had been resolved, and thousands of students had used the latest version of the Surpass software earlier in the month without problems. In all, four versions of the software were rolled out in the year leading up to the final exam.
“The newest version (of Surpass) was used successfully during preparatory tests administered to approximately 3,300 students on September 6 and 7,” Lambie said.
“Based on that experience, and the work we had done with the software provider over a period of many months, we felt comfortable using Surpass for the September 2019 Common Final Examination.”
A spokesperson for BTL Group, the U.K.-based vendor of assessment software and services used by CPA Canada, said the the freezing issue experienced by some CPA Canada candidates in late 2018 arose because of compatibility issues with laptops brought to the examinations by the candidates, and it was resolved using simulated Word and Excel applications.
He said BTL was not aware of any issues experienced during other “mock” exams in the lead-up to the final examination in September, which some candidates say they experienced.
The vendor is familiar with the problems that arose during the three-day exam sitting in September, and knows CPA Canada did not to use the Surpass software for the exams the following month, the spokesperson said.
“BTL and CPA Canada are working together to determine what processes or technology changes can be made for future exams,” he said in an email, adding that technical problems have been “extremely rare” in some 25 million “high stakes” exams delivered by BTL to its customers.
BTL representatives did not speak directly to Borden Ladner, the law firm handling the independent inquiry into what went wrong during CFE 2019, but the vendor worked “closely” with an independent third party technical expert brought in to assist the law firm, the spokesperson said.
CPA Canada has not provided a timeline for when the evaluation by the law firm will be completed, and told the Post this week that the “BLG review is ongoing.”
In the days following the final examination, CPA Canada and its provincial counterparts received hundreds of complaints, according to an email sent to candidates in September by CPA Canada chief executive Joy Thomas.
The organization offered “sincere apologies to anyone who was affected” and laid out plans to retain the third-party expert to conduct an “independent, comprehensive review,” with a mandate including an evaluation of the “integrity and reliability” of the 2019 exam process.