CFA® Exam Scoring and Pass Rates
How is the CFA Exam scored?
Before taking the CFA Level 1 Exam, you should understand the CFA scoring system and the CFA Level 1 passing score. How is the CFA Exam scored? Can you earn partial credit for a question? How do you know if there is a possible error in your exam score? And what in the world is the Minimum Passing Score (MPS)? These are all excellent questions, and this detailed article will answer them for you.
Your CFA Exam score is not as simple as a percentage. Answering 70% of the questions on the Exam correctly does not translate into a score of 70. Many factors affect your CFA Exam Score, including:
- Multiple-Choice Questions
- Constructed Response
- Minimum Passing Score
- Score Weighting
All multiple-choice questions on all three CFA Exam Levels are machine-graded. About 10% of the exams will be re-graded by hand to check for inconsistencies and ensure accuracy. The clarity and validity of multiple-choice questions may be reevaluated during the grading period based on trends in results and complaints filed during testing. Any questions that the CFA Institute considers unclear or invalid will automatically be credited toward your score.
Because multiple-choice grading is done mainly by a machine, results are typically available for the Level 1 and 2 exams within 60 days of your test date, compared to the Level 3 results, which can take up to 90 days due to that Level’s constructed-response component.
The Level 3 constructed response questions are graded by an elite team of CFA Charterholders who meet in Charlottesville, VA, for two weeks to grade those questions. The graders are split into groups, and each team will handle one specific question. A system of junior, senior, and graders that grade the other graders is put in place to ensure no mistakes. Thus, each response is given a fair and level of a playing field. Graders never see your name, other answers, or even the grading center where you took your test.
Moreover, a different person grades those essay responses where the score falls in the middle 50% of the distribution a second time. This step ensures that if an essay is not exceptionally above or below average (in which case there is little need to grade again), it will receive a second look. If the first and second scores differ, it gets graded a third time to be sure.
Minimum Passing Score
After each Exam is administered, CFA Institute establishes the minimum passing score for each Exam Level. There is no way to know what the MPS will be since it changes every year and isn’t available to the public. Passing scores often change from one test period to the next. One reason for this is to ensure fairness to applicants as the difficulty of each Exam is considered when setting the minimum scores.
So how is it decided? To determine the MPS for an exam, the CFA Institute Board of Governors (The Board) uses a complex process known as the Angoff Standard Setting Method as a criterion for establishing the MPS. Without diving into the technical details of the Angoff Method (see p. 11 of The CFA Program: Where Theory Meets Practice), below is the summarized process for setting the MPS:
- The Board assembles a diverse group of CFA Charterholders into two groups for each CFA Exam Level.
- Participants in each group thoroughly analyze each question on their assigned Exam in a series of workshops.
- In a three-round process, participants assess each question for its difficulty and independently judge how well they would expect a “just-competent” candidate to perform on each question.
- Participants submit a report to The Board recommending a score range they have determined to meet the appropriate competence level in the subject matter from their perspective as Charterholders.
- The Board then compiles these analyses to determine the minimum score expected of a competent candidate, hence the MPS.
By this point, the Board has already determined the Exams’ numerical scores, so it becomes merely a matter of applying the MPS to decide whether that score constitutes a passing or failing grade. Numerical scores are not provided to candidates, only a score report that indicates “Pass” or “Fail.” Candidates receive feedback on their performance in each topic courtesy of a Score Report, but relative to other candidates, not an absolute score.
Ultimately, the Angoff Method determines the extent to which a CFA candidate who possesses the knowledge necessary to pass a specific CFA Exam Level would have scored and then compares each CFA candidate to that standard. Therefore, a candidate should not be allowed to advance to the next Level until they have achieved that minimum threshold of competence.
CFA candidates might be tempted to ask, “How many topics in the 50 to 70 percent range and below 50 percent range can I have and still pass?” The truth is, this is a meaningless question since the bands provide so little information about a candidate's actual performance in a topic that they can't be used as a reliable gauge. Your goal should be to acquire as many areas in the "over 70%" band as possible.
- A candidate who scored in the 50 to 70 percent range could have gotten 51 percent or 69 percent of the questions correct, which would have significantly impacted their final score.
- Topic weights have a significant impact on a candidate’s ultimate score. The results of a CFA level 1 candidate in one of the more prominent topics, such as Financial Analysis and Reporting (20%) or Quantitative Methods (12%), have a far more significant impact than the results of a low-weight topic such as Alternative Investments (3%). While you never want to ignore any topic, it is a good idea to focus (and do well) on those that will feature the most questions.
- If you achieve a score greater than 65 percent, are your odds of passing favorable? Probably, but success isn’t guaranteed because it’s on the dividing line between “competent” and “not quite.” With the Ethics Adjustment, your score on Ethics can either push you over the edge into a passing category or drag you down into a failing category.
Your score report has two components: how you did on the Exam and performed (relatively) on each topic. From your perspective, the first is far more critical: it shows you if you passed or failed. The score is superimposed against the MPS. If it’s above the MPS, congratulations - you passed.
You will also notice a light blue box extending above and below your score line representing the likely range of scores within a 90% level of confidence you would have achieved given favorable conditions. For example, if the topics chosen for the Exam had been a little more focused on your area of expertise, you could have had a higher score. On the other hand, if your dog had barked all night and you did not get a wink of sleep before the Exam, you could have had a worse score. A wider box indicates a broader range of outcomes and test-taker inconsistency.
It is likely that regardless of favorable or unfavorable conditions, you would still score within that range. So, if you failed, but your confidence interval overlapped with the MPS, it means you were close and would have likely passed with a little more studying. But if you failed and the highest range of your confidence interval was still under the MPS, it is unlikely you would have scored better under any circumstances, so you’ll need to be more prepared next time.
Score line & score box comfortably above MPS line. would pass under most circumstances.
However, score box is above MPS line - indicating could have passed if performing at best.
Refer to CFA result indication. Pass/fail cannot be reliably inferred from chart.
90th percentile Line
10th percentile Line
Score Box & Score Line
All of these rates are significantly lower than their historical averages. Level 1 consistently has the lowest pass rates, while Levels 2 and 3 are usually higher.
The CFA Institute publishes a performance guide that can help candidates interpret their results. Candidates who fail can register for the next session and are encouraged to learn from their Score Report when preparing to retake the CFA Exam. The Exam is offered several times a year, and candidates can take it as many times as they wish.
CFA Exam Scoring and Pass Rates FAQs
The CFA Institute declares the results in three tiers: <=50%, 51%-70%, >70%. The CFA Institute uses a combination of measures to determine these score brackets.
The Minimum Passing Score (MPS) set by the CFA Institute will never surpass 70%. This MPS means that 70%-100% is the highest score bracket for passing a specific topic.
According to the CFA Institute, Level 1 and 2 Exam results are available within 60 days of the test date and 90 days for Level 3.
Gaining Confidence in Your Exam Scores
Along with the nerve-wracking nature of the Exam itself, there is much uncertainty surrounding your chances of passing it. You don’t know what the MPS will be, and you’ll be unable to calculate the number of questions you can afford to miss or what your margin of error can be. So how can you be confident about passing?
Relying on luck is never a good strategy, so really, there is only one answer: confidence comes from proper preparation. The best way to know you will pass is to prepare thoroughly. The best way to prepare thoroughly is to study with a comprehensive online learning platform built for your success.
Tailored to your unique study preferences, our CFA Level 1 Exam Prep tracks your performance and gives you access to the most relevant and up-to-date Level 1 Exam content. That’s why when you study with us, you will have everything you need to pass with confidence and earn your CFA Charter.