Concepts n Clarity®

2021 CFA Level 1 CBT: Quick Summary of Changes.

CFA Level 1 computer based testing 2021
By Concepts'n'Clarity Team

Back in March 2019, CFA Institute made a big announcement whereby CFA Level 1 exams will transition to computer-based testing (CBT) in 2021, starting in February. This move was done to keep up with the latest credentialing practices whilst enhancing overall candidate experience (more test venues, flexible scheduling and faster results delivery).

We now have more details about the upcoming computer-based Level 1 exams, summarized for you post our discussion with CFA Institute themselves, along with detailed FAQs which we recommend you look through. 

P.S. - Yes, there are changes in exam format and exam frequency, amongst other things.
CFA Level 1 changes 2020 vs 2021 computer based testing

2021 CFA Level 1 Computer-Based Testing: Quick Summary of Changes

Dec 2020 Level 1 Exam
(Last paper-based exam)
Feb 2021 Level 1 Exam
​(First computer-based exam)
Exam Day / Frequency
  • 1 exam day / time offered
  • Current paper-based Level 1 exams in 2020 offered twice a year in June and December
  • An exam window (of up to ​7 days) that you can choose
  • New computer-based Level 1 exams starting Feb 2021 are offered 4 times a year in February, May, August and November.
Exam Format
240 multiple choice questions, split into 2 equal sessions:
  • Morning: 120 questions in 3 hours;
  • Afternoon: 120 questions in 3 hours.
180 multiple choice questions, split into 2 equal sessions:
  • Morning: 90 questions in 2 hours 15 minutes;
  • Afternoon: 90 questions in 2 hours 15 minutes.
Proctored exam in 87 locations globally
Proctored exam in 400+ locations globally
If passed, when is the earliest I can take Level 2?
If passed Level 1 Dec 2020 exam, you can register for Level 2 June 2021 exam.
If passed Level 1 Feb 2021 exam, you can register for Level 2 June 2022 exam (6 months minimum between exams).
If failed, when is the earliest I can retake Level 1?
If failed Level 1 Dec 2020 exam, the earliest you can retake is May 2021.  
If failed Level 1 Feb 2021 exam, the earliest you can retake is August 2021 (6 months minimum between exams).  
Exam results availability
Within 60 days of taking the exam
Results are not instantaneous, but would be faster than paper-based format (i.e. less than 60 days)​

CFA Level 1 Computer Based Testing FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About CFA Computer-Based Testing

1) ​Does this mean that the last paper-based CFA Level 1 exam would be December 2020?

Yes, that’s correct. 

The first computer-based Level 1 exam will be administered in February 2021. 
Although the exams will be digital, they are not online. Exams will be offered in proctored test centers globally.

2) Will the exam format change for computer-based Level 1?

The new Level 1 exams starting in Feb 2021 will have ​180 questions (vs. the current 240 questions), with a proportional reduction in exam time. CFA Institute's rationale for this is that their independent research has showed that a shorter exam would not affect their ability to reliably determine who has demonstrated the required competency to pass the exam.

This means that there will be 90 questions each for Morning and Afternoon exam sessions, with each session lasting 2 hour 15 minutes (135 minutes).

Each exam appointment will last 5.5 hours, consisting of:
  • 30 minutes allotted to pledge, tutorial, and survey
  • 135 minutes for Morning (AM) session
  • 30 minutes for mandatory break
  • 135 minutes for Afternoon (PM) session
  • Total testing time is 4.5 hours

3) Will Level 1 candidates have more test dates, and be able to reattempt more often than the current 6-month exam cycle? 

The first computer-based CFA Level 1 exam will be held in February 2021. CFA Level 1 computer-based testing (CBT) will be offered globally in 4 windows each year (February, May, August, and November). Each exam window lasts up to 7 days, depending on city

​CBT allows flexible windows of test taking, and therefore CFA Institute can offer candidates a greater selection of test dates. During exam windows, candidates will take exams on different days and all exams will be completed at the end of an exam cycle rather than on one exam day.

That said, Level 1 CBT candidates can only take the exams twice a year at most (minimum 6 months wait) – the same timeframe as current candidates must wait. Candidates who pass Feb 2021 Level 1 CBT exam will have to wait until registration opens for the next available Level 2 exam, which is also a minimum of 6 months. Candidates will move through the program at the same pace as they can currently.

4) I'm new to the CFA exams: should I take CFA Level 1 in Dec 2020 or 2021?

We can't advise on this as it depends on your personal circumstances and preferences.

That said, which one you choose does affect the speed of completing the CFA Program (if you pass Level 1 at first try):
  • The December 2020 exam is the last paper-based exam for Level 1 candidates and would allow time to register for Level 2 in June 2021, assuming a Level 1 pass.
  • The first computer-based exam will be in February 2021. If you pass however, you can only take the Level 2 exam in June 2022​, as there is a minimum 6 months wait per exam.  

5) Where are the new test locations for computer-based CFA Level 1 exams?

CFA Institute will provide a list of test center locations in June 2020 ​when registration for the February 2021 Level I CFA Program CBT window opens.

​It is expected that it can be held in more locations around the world than currently offered by paper-based exams.

6) ​How will the exam vary across different exam dates? Will it be a separate exam for every available date, or a randomly generated mix of questions every time (i.e. like a question bank)?

CFA Institute stated its commitment to maintain the integrity of the CFA Program, including protecting exam content.

​On all testing dates, candidates will continue to share a common testing experience. Building an item bank is central to that endeavor and creates a level playing field for all candidates whether they test at the beginning or end of a testing window.

CFA Institute mentioned that it cannot share the specifics of the exam construction techniques without compromising the security of the exam, but questions will be generated according to psychometrically sound principles that provides a consistent standard across candidates and across time.

8) How will the Minimum Passing Score (MPS) be determined now that the exam cycles are changing?

Candidates will not receive their final results instantly, but can expect to receive results more quickly than is possible under the current examination format. CFA Institute expects to provide a more reasonable expectation after the first few CBT administrations.​

7) ​Will results be instant? If not, when could candidates now expect to receive their results?

Currently, the CFA Institute Board of Governors determines the minimum passing score for each exam administration based on guidance from approximately 30 CFA charterholders who review each exam question-by-question in a process, known as standard setting. This process is described in detail in The CFA Program: Where Theory Meets Practice.

Under computer-based testing, CFA Institute will continue standard setting on a periodic basis while using statistical techniques to assure a consistent difficulty level across exam windows.

In short, following each exam window, CFA institute will determine the Minimum Passing Score based on performance, which will remain unchanged. This means that candidates who completed the exam in CBT will be held to the same standard as those who completed a paper-based exam.

9) Would the value of the CFA Charter be diluted as a result of increased test candidates via computer-based testing?

CFA Institute stated that it would not make changes that risk diluting the value of the charter. They do not expect necessarily to serve more candidates, but to make the exams a more convenient process for them.

Although the Level 1 exam is offered 4 times a year, candidates will only be allowed to test twice per year. This is intentional and is also a natural result of the timeline for when results are released vs. when registration is open for the next exam. For example, a candidate failing Level 1 Feb 2021 exam can register for a Level 1 retake from August onwards, but not May.

10) ​Will the exam fee be lowered/changed to reflect the new logistics (and costs) of administering the exam?

Computer-based testing is a more expensive exam delivery model for an organization operating on the scale of CFA Institute. That said, it is expected that there would not be significant changes to examination fees as a result of computer-based testing. 

11) ​Are there any plans to move Levels 2 and 3 to computer testing? Or to increase test frequency for those 2 levels?

At this time, CFA Institute is only focused on delivering computer-based testing for Level 1. There are no current plans to transition CFA Level 2 and 3 to computer-based testing, nor does CFA Institute expect to change the testing frequency while still administering these exams under paper-based testing.

Have a question that's not covered? Let us know in the comments and we'll try to get a response from CFA Institute!
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