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Understand CFA® Scores: The Grading Process

By: Kaplan Schweser
January 13, 2022
Understand how the CFA exam is scored and the grading process

Your CFA exam score is graded by machines and charterholders. CFA Institute then uses a methodology to determine a minimum passing score that is applied to each exam. In this article, we break down how the whole grading process works and share some tips to increase your likelihood of getting a passing grade.

CFA Exam Score Grading

The multiple-choice sections in all three levels of the CFA exam are graded by a machine, although 10 percent are checked by humans. The essay portion of CFA Level III—known as constructed response—is graded by CFA charterholders. The graders are divided into teams, and each team grades one question, using guideline answers and grading keys provided by CFA Institute. The graders do not know the names of any of the candidates or even their testing centers.

Junior graders, senior graders, and a grader of graders not only grade the exams but also check the work of others to ensure consistency and quality. The middle 50 percent of the distribution of scores are graded again by someone else to ensure that marginal cases get another pass. Then, for those exams with questions where the scores of the first and second rounds of grading are different, there is a third round of grading. This thoroughness from the CFA Institute is why it can take so long to get your results, but is critical to ensuring that the grading rubric is being applied fairly. 

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CFA Exam Grading Process: Step-by-step

If you’re wondering why it takes so long to receive your results for these computer-based exams, this comprehensive, step-by-step breakdown of the grading process helps explain the timeline:

  1. Testing centers send exam data to Prometric after your test day. Once the results are received, it is consolidated and made available to CFA Institute. Due to the high volume of CFA candidates, this first part of the process can take several days after the exam window has closed.
  2. CFA Institute reviews the exam day experience. It’s during the days waiting for the results from Prometric that the CFA Institute reviews candidate comments and statistics on a question-by-question basis. This helps them flag any questions that were confusing or did not do a good job of evaluating candidates’ understanding of the content.
  3. CFA Institute validates that they have received all test results for all candidates correctly.
  4. CFA Institute begins its official analysis. They validate that each version of the exam performs as expected. Due to the collaborative nature of the grading process—mostly for the Level III essay portion—it takes a few weeks to complete.
  5. Standard Setting grading takes place over the next few days. This is when the CFA Institute’s pool of diverse graders (“Standard Setters”) review each question on the exam to determine the likelihood of a ‘Just Qualified Candidate’ will or will not answer that question correctly (in theory). This process essentially weighs the difficulty of questions on the exam to help determine what can be deemed as a fair passing score.
  6. CFA Institute recommends their Minimum Passing Score. This is the aggregate of the question-by-question judgments made by graders during the Standard Setting grading process.
  7. Automated process generates the score report that candidates receive.
  8. Quality assurance double checks those reports for accuracy.
  9. Results release is scheduled. The scheduled CFA Exam results release is always scheduled in advance with bandwidth in mind, given the high demand of candidates rightfully wanting to access their scores immediately upon release.

What exactly is the CFA Minimum Passing Score?

The Minimum Passing Score (MPS) is the benchmark used to determine whether a candidate has passed or failed the exam. The MPS varies for each level and is determined after each exam administration.

To get the MPS, CFA Institute conducts workshops for each level of the exam. Workshop participants go through the entire exam several times, looking at each question to make independent judgments on the expected performance of a “just-competent” candidate on each question. After they correlate the judgments and review them, they issue a report that provides a score range for the exam.

CFA charterholder members on the Board of Governors of CFA Institute use this report as the foundation for setting the MPS for each level. CFA Institute does not release the MPS, although research indicates that it hovers between 60 and 70 percent.

Because the CFA Institute uses multiple versions of each exam, they need to make sure the MPS is set fairly across different versions.  To do this they use the process of equating, which is a statistical process to maintain comparable scores on different test versions both within and across administrations.  

With this method, the CFA Institute can be confident the MPS was set fairly across two or more different versions of the exam.

The Final Grade

Candidates do not receive a numerical score for their exams. After the MPS is set, it is applied to each graded exam, and candidates get their results. They receive either “Pass” for a score at or above the MPS or a “Did not pass” result for a score below it.

With their grade, candidates also get a summary of how they did by each topic area covered on the exam and the maximum amount of points that candidates can earn in each topic area. The score for each topic area is expressed in three ranges: less than 50 percent, between 50 and 70 percent, and more than 70 percent.

CFA Exam Grading Interpretation Guide >>

How to Get a “Pass” Result after CFA Exam Grading

If you would like to increase your chances of getting the “Pass” grade, here are some steps to follow for each level of the CFA exam:

  1. Develop your study plan 6–9 months before the exam.
  2. Allot 90–120 hours to reading and coursework, 120–150 hours to answering practice questions, and 60 hours to taking practice and mock exams.
  3. Make all Learning Outcome Statements part of your plan.
  4. Use study groups and CFA exam prep courses to stick to your plan.
  5. Know the exam weights.
  6. For each concept you learn, ask yourself how it applies in the real world.
  7. In the last weeks, before the exam, instead of panicking or ramping up your study intensity, space your practice sessions further apart, and get plenty of rest.
As you strive for a positive outcome from CFA exam grading, consider making Kaplan Schweser CFA study materials—complete with classes, practice exams, and mock exams—the centerpiece of your mission to earn a passing grade on all levels of the CFA exam.

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