Last week, the CFP Board issued a press release announcing that it was transitioning from a paper-based test to a computer-based testing process, in an effort to improve the ease and efficiency of the test-taking experience for CFP certification candidates. The move to computer-based testing will allow the CFP Board to issue preliminary results immediately, offer official results in just 1-2 weeks (down from 5 weeks with the paper-based exam), and dramatically expand the breadth of available testing locations.
Yet in a surprising and dramatic change that was explained as little more than a side "benefit" to the computer-based exam process, the CFP Board also announced that the length of the CFP exam going forward would be chopped by a whopping 40%, from 285 exam questions down to only 170, while the duration of the exam itself is reduced from a 10-hour day-and-a-half exam into a 6-hour single-day exam.
While the CFP Board maintains that this is not a change in how hard the CFP exam really is - i.e., the difficulty of the exam isn't meant to be increased nor decreased by the change, because the (fewer) questions themselves will still be targeted for similar difficulty - the question arises nonetheless why the CFP Board would implement such a change, if the goal wasn't to at least create the perception that the exam will be easier and therefore more appealing to take? Which in turn raises the question - did the CFP Board just lower the standards of the CFP exam and try to make it easier to grow the ranks of CFP certificants?
CFP Exam Announcement
The CFP Board's announcement of the transition to Computer-Based Testing (CBT) was announced last Thursday in a press release (now available on the CFP Board's website). The key changes associated with the announcement included:
- CBT will be first available for the November 2014 exam. The March and July exams will continue to use the existing paper-based system.
- CBT exams will be administered at Prometric proctored testing centers (not available from a home computer), which should expand the available test-taking locations to approximately 250 nationwide (by contrast, there are only about 50 paper-based testing sites now).
- With CBT exams, testing will no longer occur uniformly on a single day nationwide. Instead, each exam cycle will have a "testing window" with 5 available exam days (presumably over the span of 1 week). The new CBT exam date process will be scheduled online, allowing candidates the choice of which date they wish to test (within the testing window) and at what location (amongst the available Prometric locations). For the November exam, registration is not available yet (nor are the testing dates announced) but they will be available online sometime later this year, by June 1st at the latest.
- Preliminary "unofficial" CFP exam results will be available upon completion of the exam. The "official" results will be available 1-2 weeks after the exam is completed, rather than the current 5-week process. The time period from completion until the release of "official" results is when the CFP Board conducts its exam scoring process, including testing and analysis of the exam results to affirm the cut score (required score to pass), determine whether any questions were flawed and need to be eliminated based on results and/or any post-exam complaints, etc.
Yet included in this announcement of changes, the CFP Board also noted that an additional "benefit" of CBT is that the CFP exam will be reduced from its existing day-and-a-half 10-exam hour into a "convenient" 6-hour exam administered in a single day.
Looking Deeper At The New Shorter CFP Exam
The CFP Board's press release, along with a supplemental "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQ) document specifically emphasizes that the new, shorter CFP exam will still be comprehensive and will remain "equally rigorous" by still testing the same content based on the CFP Board's Job Task Domains and Principal Topics. Questions will still be multiple choice (with four answer choices), and will still be a combination of stand-alone multiple choice questions as well as sets of exam questions around short scenarios or lengthy case histories. But instead of 285 questions (on the 10-hour exam), there will be only 170 questions on the 6-hour exam (a 40% reduction in questions to align with the 40% reduction in test-taking time).
The CFP Board declares that the science it uses to determine the requisite pass score to maintain comparable difficulty from one exam to the next will be applied to ensure the same performance level is required to pass the 6-hour computer-based exam as the 10-hour paper-based exam.
Yet the question remains - why would the CFP Board reduce the duration of the exam in the first place, if it wasn't intended to improve perceptions about the difficulty of the exam and make it seem less daunting? In other words, if the goal was really to leave everything the same about the difficulty of the exam... then why change the length of the exam in the first place? Why not just make it the same day-and-a-half 285-question CFP exam, just delivered via CBT at the closest available Prometric testing center?
Easier CFP Exam Or Just Modernizing It?
Arguably, at least one clear reason to change the exam from 10 hours to 6 hours was simply an acknowledgement that it really is inconvenient to have the exam administered over multiple days. In the context of administering via computer-based training, this requires some additional cost to manage the multi-day oversight and proctoring, and introduces at least some additional risk that candidates will try to cheat (especially if they're not all testing at the same time across the country). In addition, a challenge of the existing multi-day format is that candidates who don't live near testing locations often have to spend additional money on a hotel just to be able to stay overnight near an available testing center to cover the 2-day span (though presumably this would be less of an issue with the expansion to 250 testing centers, as CFP Board estimates that there will now be a site within 25 miles of nearly 90% of CFP certification candidates).
Of course, the CFP Board certainly isn't unique in its goal to administer the CFP exam in a computer-based format. The CPA exam is administered via computer (though the CPA exam is still administered in 4 sections spanning 14 hours!), and the CFP Board notes in its press release a wide range of other professional standards organizations that have long since adopted CBT, from the National Board of Medical Examiners to the American Board of Surgery, and of course much of financial services itself has long since adopted CBT (e.g., all FINRA exams are also administered via Prometric centers).
Yet the concern remains that this change follows quickly on the heels of the CFP Board's study released this summer that found a whopping 69% of surveyed financial planning students who graduated between 2006 and 2011 had not taken the CFP exam; the clear implication is that if so few students are taking the CFP exam, perhaps making it "more convenient" will increase the number of students that pursue the exam (and hopefully the subsequent requirements that still apply to ultimately receive and be eligible to use the CFP marks). In other words, by making the exam a less-daunting 6-hour exam instead of a 10-hour exam, is the CFP Board trying to entice more students (and others?) to pursue the CFP certification?
How Hard Is The CFP Exam, And Is A Shorter One Still Sufficient As A Professional Standard?
To be fair, it's worth noting that there's nothing especially sacred about a 10-hour versus a 6-hour exam, besides the non-trivial detail that everyone who's earned their CFP certification for the past 23 years has had to sit for the 10-hour exam, and when someone goes through that kind of endeavor, it doesn't feel very good to know that someone who came afterwards had to do less or had it "easier" - it reduces the sense of achievement. With the CFP Board's change, there will now be three cohorts of CFP certificants - those who got it prior to 1991 who didn't have to sit for the exam; those who got it between 1991 and 2014 who had to sit for the 10-hour exam, and those who got it November 2014 or later, who had "only" the 6-hour exam.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that when you try to evaluate how hard the CFP exam really is, the length of the exam isn't necessarily the best indicator. A longer exam doesn't always mean it's more comprehensive, and it's entirely possible that the only thing really different about the "difficulty" of the 10-hour version of the exam versus the 6-hour version is that it tested someone's capacity to stay focused and not freak out for a 10-hour exam testing period... which isn't particularly meaningful as a professional standard. Whether the CFP Board otherwise allows the exam to get "easier" remains to be seen, though again it pledges that there is no intention to otherwise change the criteria used to set the pass score for the exam (and the CFP Board does in fact use a reasonably rigorous psychometric process to determine this).
On the other hand, the near term reaction from many prospective exam takers has been clear: the perception is that the 6-hour exam will in some way, shape, or form, be less arduous and/or difficult. As one ChFC (non-CFP) who has been considering the exam put it:
This is great news! With managing a practice, I might sit for it. CFP Board Moving to Shorter, Computer-Based Exams http://t.co/QdSflOZTC5
— Janet Barr, MS, ChFC (@JanetBarrCFS) January 10, 2014
I've already heard from many others who are earlier in the process, and are expressing relief that by the time they finish their coursework, they will be sitting for the shorter exam. Ultimately, the CFP Board's own public statistics on test-taking will reveal a lot about whether the exam is at least perceived to be easier when we see how many people actually sit for the CFP exam at the March and July testings, versus how many choose to defer to the first CBT 6-hour version of the exam in November. If we see a plunge in the number of exam takers for the March and/or July exams, we'll at least have the answer about whether the exam is perceived to be easier because it's going to be shorter.
In addition, as one anonymous reader has pointed out, the case studies are notorious for being a difficult part of the CFP exam because of their depth and breadth, but it's not entirely clear how a broad case study can even be delivered in a CBT format. Will the case study have to be shortened to the point that it all fits on a single page on one screen with the question below it, since there is no "test exam booklet" to flip through multiple pages? Will the entire case study portion of the CFP exam be undermined in a CBT format?
In the end, though, the real statistics we'll all be waiting to see is not just how many people pass the November CFP exam, and whether there is a material difference in the pass rate compared to the historical average. At that point, we'll have a clearer picture about whether the CFP exam was really just made more convenient, or if the CFP Board actually just lowered the bar to try to bring in more CFP certificants.
Either way, though, I have a feeling that for decades to come, we'll still be hearing a lot of today's CFP certificants remind those who come along in the future "Back in my day, the CFP exam was almost twice as long as it is now!" (Followed, no doubt, by the point that they had to walk to the testing center in the snow, uphill, both ways.) Let's hope that the future certificants can at least legitimately reply "Yes, but the test is still just as hard, and the standards are just as high as they've always been; the pass rate isn't any higher now than it was back in 'your' day." We'll see.
So what do you think? Is the new shorter CFP exam a sign of progress and modernization, or a lowering of the standard? Are you CFP candidate planning on waiting for the new format of the CFP exam?