Apologies but no answers after 'technical challenges' wreak havoc in accounting exam

For more than 400 accounting students in Edmonton, a long-awaited opportunity to be professionally certified last week was marred by technical difficulties that wreaked havoc with their writing of what’s been called a famously difficult exam.

Tarek Ahmed said the technical problems created a difficult 12-hour day, disrupted students’ access to necessary testing materials and left them concerned about whether or not they have passed.

“A lot of us here are worried about, well, how are [examiners] going to mark this?'” Ahmed, chief financial officer for Edmonton-based BRNT Designs, told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM on Wednesday. 

“To pass people arbitrarily or to fail people arbitrarily would be unfair,” he said. “We will kind of see how they deal with this.”

The Common Final Examination, the final step to becoming a chartered professional accountant, has traditionally been offered once a year and takes place over three days. This year, the dates were Sept. 11, 12 and 13. Candidates from coast to coast get access at 9 a.m. local time to ensure the test remains secure.

Ahmed said the examination follows about 30 months of working in the field, in addition to education and exam preparation. “People from all levels are pursuing this certification,” he said.

Candidates writing the exam in Edmonton this year did it at the Expo Centre.

The first hint of trouble came on Day 1 when there was a two-hour delay, Ahmed said.  “But aside from that it was all right. We assumed that would be the worst of it.”

Day 2, however, was downright disastrous with a delay of more than five hours before the exam began — which itself takes five hours to complete, Ahmed said. 

Those who wrote the exam were at the centre for more than 10 hours, he said.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I don’t have children at home but some of us … you know, it’s not just for people under 30 here, we’re talking about people with families, responsibilities outside of this examination. They had to figure out a way to get someone to take those responsibilities from them.” 

According to accounts posted on Reddit, no food services were available at the Expo Centre, only a vending machine. Ahmed added there was no indication of when the test would get underway, so people didn’t want to risk leaving and missing the exam’s start.

The day was further compromised, he said, by the fact that online reference materials weren’t able to be accessed.

Ahmed said the exam tests students’ abilities to apply accounting codes and tax codes in a variety of cases. The reference materials are critical, he said. “We’re not tested on our ability to memorize a giant book of rules,” he said, adding that without those materials he’s “not really sure” what he was tested on.

The third day, he said, included a delay of three hours.

A blog post published to the Canadian Accountant website said connectivity problems were also experienced by students in B.C. The exam site in Victoria saw delays of one to three hours per day and programs crashed mid-exam. It also cited instances of problems in Toronto and Saskatoon.

Following the exams, all candidates received an email from the CPA Western School of Business, sent on behalf of CPA Canada, apologizing for the situation and promising to keep them informed about next steps.

“We know how important the last three days have been for you and how hard you have worked to get to this point,” it read.

In a statement provided to CBC News, CPA Canada also apologized for the “technical challenges” that resulted in delays for many students.

“We know how much work goes into preparing for this important examination,” said the statement from CPA Canada spokesperson Tobin Lambie.

“While we made every attempt to rectify the situation as it was happening, we were not able to address every issue. We are continuing to work closely with our colleagues in the profession and our service providers to identify the extent of the impact and to determine next steps.”

In 2020, the exams will be offered in both spring and fall.

Ahmed said he is expecting to find out his exam results in November.

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