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Some Friendly PR Advice for the CFP Board on Its New Test

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I stand corrected. In my December 26 ThinkAdivsor blog, I offered four trends for advisors to watch for in 2014, including “A Big Year for the CFP Board: This year, look for the Board to repair its public image…” Well, we’re not even out of January yet, and the CFP Board’s “year of not doing anything dumb” is already over.

Those readers of Melanie Waddell’s and Michael Kitces’ work will know I’m referring to the Board’s January 9th announcement of a new CFP Exam that will now be given on a “computer based testing platform,” given at 250 test sites (compared to the 50 current sites, “offering individuals more accessibility to complete initial certification requirements”) and that will provide “a greatly improved experience that tests their knowledge of financial planning.”

Critics such as Kitces (in his January 14 “Nerd’s Eye View” blog, and the CFPs interviewed by Waddell (January 17 “Did CFP Board Shorten Exams to Lure Certificants?”) cite other features of the new exam: the testing time will be shortened 40%, from the current 10 hours over two days to six hours in one day, and the number of questions will be decreased a corresponding 40%, from 285 to 170. While the Board has offered an explanation of sorts for the changes, and proferred assurances of “retaining the rigor of the CFP Certification Examination,” these critics remain skeptical of both the quality of the new exam and the Board’s motivation for the changes. While I’m no expert on professional testing, I do know a thing or two about media relations: and in the Board’s long history of subpar PR, this fiasco has to rate right down at the bottom of the list.

To begin with, the Board’s own press release makes no mention of the decrease in test questions—only the shortened hours—leaving one with an impression of the less-than-full-disclosure we’ve come to expect from less-than-professional financial advisors. Not a good start for a body that purports to enforce the ethical standards of CFPs.

Then it get’s worse.

Michele Worholic managing director for examinations, education and talent at CFP Board (no, “talent” is not a typo; you just can’t make this stuff up), assured Waddell: “…The exam isn’t any easier or more difficult. It covers the same content and those who take the computer-based exam — and pass — will be just as qualified as someone who took the paper exam…”

Warholic went on to offer an explanation for this curious assertion. Thanks to the miracle of technology “the world of testing has changed dramatically over the last decade,” and “computers help create efficiencies in testing…based upon a variety of science-based approaches used across the professional testing industry: not just a focus on the number of questions or length of an exam.”

As I said, I’m not an expert in standardized testing. And at the time of this writing, the Board had not responded to a request for further illumination. I’m willing to concede that there could be a perfectly valid scientific explanation for why a test can be substantially shorter, and still be as comprehensive and as difficult. However: this ain’t it.

PR tip to CFP Board: When you’ve recently made moves that raised questions about your credibility, and now you’ve taken a new action that seems on its face both economically motivated and ethically questionable, and the explanation involves “esoteric” concepts that seem counterintuitive (read: ridiculous), you need to say a bit more than: “trust us, it’s based on science.”

Perhaps some data showing the testing that was conducted and the results obtained. Maybe a few quotes, or even a paper, by a noted academic that supports your seemingly flawed conclusions. And/or an acknowledgement that, “yes, we know what we’re saying sounds like nonsense, but it really isn’t…” There are many of us who would like to believe that the CFP Board is a viable alternative to FINRA regulation of advisors, or to replace the underfunded, understaffed SEC. But you have to give us a reason to believe rather than leaving us shaking our heads—yet again.