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An Open Letter from a CAS Grader

By Laura Hemmer posted 03-23-2021 14:29


The Fall 2020 exam sitting, being the first sitting fully administered using computer-based testing (CBT), was a challenge for candidates in many ways as they adapted to the new format of exams. It probably doesn’t surprise candidates to know that the new CBT format presented a learning opportunity for exam graders as well. In particular, while CAS members continued to grade all answers for Exams 5-9, candidate work was conveyed to graders through a new grading vendor for the first time.  Thankfully, gone are the days of pages and pages of photocopies.


Most candidate questions about CBT have centered on what is needed to show work in the new Pearson VUE (PV) spreadsheet and what the grader sees when grading a candidate’s work.  Below is an open letter from a Fall 2020 exam grader that shares some of their advice and lessons learned for candidates after grading in the new system. 


Just from looking at the answers given on the question I graded this winter, I can tell that candidates are uncertain what their answer will look like to the grader. In an effort to help both candidates and graders have the best possible experience with CBT, I am writing this description of what candidate answers look like to graders. Please note that this process is still new, and both the testing software and the grading software will evolve with time. But I expect this description to remain broadly true and helpful for the foreseeable future.


Graders don’t directly access the PV software. Instead, they use an interface produced by a third-party vendor. When the grader gets a candidate response, it looks like a spreadsheet.  The question itself is in the upper left corner of the spreadsheet, in a box, and the candidate’s response is somewhere else on the page.  Here are some general points of advice:

    • Put your response reasonably close to the question, where you would expect anyone looking for it to find it. What the grader sees is a live spreadsheet. We can see that in cell G30 you added cells D3 and E3, and then divided by cell D8. And if we press the right keys, those cells are highlighted, just like in Excel.
    • There’s no need to copy over numbers given in the problem. If it helps you to reorganize the numbers, then by all means do so. But you don’t need to do that for the grader to see your work. And since the grader can highlight a cell and see what cells it refers to, it is ever-so-slightly easier for the grader to see which entry you used if you refer directly to the cell given in the problem.
    • Please don’t write out the numbers in text. Some candidates wrote things like
      5 + 3.5 = 6. Candidates probably did that to make sure they showed their work, but it’s an unnecessary use of your exam time.
    • Please do write out a high-level description of your goal, if it’s not completely obvious. For instance, Incurred = Paid + Outstanding or The trend is [cell reference] can help the grader see your intention.
    • Clearly organizing your work, with separate calculations for each major step, can help the grader understand what you are doing. Using a complex calculation all into one cell is okay if the grader can follow it…and especially if you don’t make any errors. But splitting up the complex calculation into a few major steps may make it easier to follow. And easier-to-follow means easier-to-assign partial credit, should you make a mistake.
      • In particular, the grader can edit the spreadsheet to see if you would have gotten the right answer if you’d used cell F3 instead of cell D3. (Don’t worry, the grader can’t save any changes, and if they mess up, they can just re-open the page to get a clean copy of your work. Also, no grader can affect what the other grader sees on the page.) This is GREAT for partial credit, IF the grader can tell what you were trying to do.
      • Of course, tons of little disconnected calculations, not all of which you use, can also obscure your intention, so edit your work if you have time to do so.
      • A good rule of thumb when reviewing your work is to ask yourself, “If I gave this to my co-worker, would they be able to follow what I did?”
    • Make sure you clearly answer the question. Whether it’s a short-answer text question or an essay or a calculation, make sure the grader knows what you think is the answer to the question. You can highlight or bold the cell with your answer. Or you can use words.
      • For example, if the question asks “briefly explain whether this change in the situation increases or decreases the needed premium”, it’s best to make it clear in your answer that you read the question. Something like “This change will increase the needed premium because of a, b, and c” is clear. “Increase” is not clear.
      • When reviewing your work, ask yourself, “If I sent this to my internal customer, would they know what the answer to their question was?” Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to write a formal business letter. Everyone understands that this is a timed exam. But you don’t want the grader to be guessing at your answer or your understanding.


In general, if you think of yourself as creating a small spreadsheet for someone else to review, you will be on the right track.  Good luck on your next exam!