COVID-19 is ushering in a new era of conducting examinations for licences, designations and certifications in the financial services industry – one in which online proctors watch test-takers through their webcams and monitor their movements as they answer multiple choice questions from the comfort of their own homes.
“It’s a little ‘Big Brother-ish,’” says Marc Flynn, senior vice-president of regulatory relations and credentialing at the Canadian Securities Institute (CSI) in Montreal. The organization, which is a primary provider of courses and examinations for financial services professionals, plans to incorporate remote testing alongside in-person computer-based testing into its offerings at some point “in the coming months.”
The move to introduce remote testing was prompted in equal parts by a backlog of students taking courses through the CSI who had their spring exams postponed at the start of the pandemic, reduced capacity that exam rooms allow because of physical distancing measures and a general need for flexibility amid the uncertainty that COVID-19 has produced.
First to take the leap in this direction was FP Canada, which announced on Aug. 6 that it would be offering remote testing for those enrolled to take its certified financial planner (CFP) and qualified associate financial planner (QAFP) exams in November.
“We’re accelerating new ideas and new ways of thinking of doing things differently, perhaps more efficiently and perhaps in ways that maybe, in the long term, are even more desirable for the constituent, beyond the pandemic,” says Cary List, FP Canada’s president and chief executive officer in Toronto.
The move comes after FP Canada made the difficult decision to cancel its June testing dates in the early days of COVID-19, automatically enrolling all test-takers in the November exams instead. To handle the increased capacity, FP Canada is also offering three testing dates for the CFP exam – Nov. 24, 25 and 26 – available both in-person and remotely.
While Mr. List admits that he feels confident offering in-person exams, with test-takers distanced six feet apart, in the short term, the nature of working through a pandemic requires his team to prepare for the worst.
“We don’t know what the fall holds, and we want to make sure that we’re giving people as much flexibility and choice as possible,” he says.
Meanwhile, before the CSI beings offering remote examinations, it’s launching computer-based examinations that still require in-person attendance, but offer test-takers a number of advantages. For example, where traditional paper-based exams come with more rigid scheduling parameters and require exam takers to wait days or weeks to receive their scores, computer-based exams allow more room for a large volume of exam dates and deliver marks to students almost immediately after completion, Mr. Flynn says.
While holding either in-person computer- and paper-based exams would not be feasible if COVID-19 rates were to spike again and another lockdown was to be declared, these exam models offer certification bodies more flexibility in the short-term because they lend themselves to smaller testing groups and safe, physically-distanced exams.
In fact, the CFA Institute, a global organization based in Charlottesville, Va., announced on Aug. 4 that it also plans to adopt computer-based testing by 2021 to allow for “smaller exam settings, more exam dates, and easier scheduling with more locations.”
Peg Jobst, managing director of credentialing at the CFA Institute in Washington, D.C., says she feels confident in the technology and the company’s ability to make this transition.
“Computer testing has been around for well over 20 years,” Ms. Jobst says. “We have the luxury, at this point in time, of [making the] transition to computer-based testing not when it’s a nascent or fledgling technology, but when it’s very well established.”
Remote testing is not yet on the horizon for the CFA Institute largely because of the organization’s global scale, she says. When offering exams for test-takers in a range of settings, there are too many factors beyond its control that could affect test-takers’ access to taking or completing their exams.
“Internet connectivity is essential for online testing, and we have candidates in places where we just can’t assure that they’ll have that same continuous experience that’s at the heart of the fairness and the equitability of the exam. So, we’re not ready to take that step,” Ms. Jobst says.
Meanwhile, Mr. List and the staff at FP Canada are working overtime to prepare for two possible scenarios come November – one in which remote examination is merely a convenient option and one in which it’s a necessity.
He admits this work has been stressful but hopes it’s setting the organization up for success well beyond the pandemic.
“In the long run, I think we’ll come out the other end probably more modern and more forward-thinking,” Mr. List says.