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Campbellsville University’s Lisa McArthur is a AP Reader for Music Theory AP Exams

Dr. Lisa McArthur leads practice for the woodwind ensemble in the Gosser Fine Arts building Jan. 25, 2021. (Campbellsville University Photo by Whitley Howlett)

By Matthew Taylor, news writer, Office of University Communications

CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – Dr. Lisa McArthur, professor of music, is in her 14th year as an AP Reader for Music Theory AP Exams.

Music Theory is the fundamentals of music, reading notes on several clefs, understanding rhythm, understanding time signatures and spelling and naming chords, as well as music creation, writing chord progressions and composing counterpoint exercises.

AP Readers for Music Theory exams are given the task to grade nine free-response questions. The nine free-response questions are separated into two melodic dictation, two harmonic dictation, two short chorales, two sight singing questions and one counterpoint exercise.

For melodic dictation, a melody is played and the student writes down the pitches and rhythms they hear. “These can be challenging to grade if notes are left out,” McArthur said. “Some notations can be challenging to read.”

In harmonic dictation, a chord progression is played and the student writes down the lowest pitch of every chord and a symbol to represent each chord. “These are quick to grade because there is very little variety about what is correct,” McArthur said. “On the contrary, this is challenging for the student to complete because they only have a few times to hear the chord progression.”

The two short chorales are short answers the students write based off specific information provided in the question. “These have a variety in their answer choices, so they can take a little more time to grade,” McArthur said.

For sight singing questions, students are given a printed melody that they should be able to then sing. They are each the same length and there are only two keys; one is a major key and the other is a minor key. Readers use headphones to listen to the students’ response. “Sometimes, these can be challenging to grade if the recording is faint, but, with the exams going digital, the recordings have improved,” McArthur said.

The one counterpoint exercise provides the students with one voice and the students need to create the other voice and include symbols for the chords they have chosen for each. “This is the most challenging to grade because it has a composition element to it,” McArthur said. “So, there are several ways to get a correct answer. This is also the most challenging questions for the students—composing without the benefit of a piano to listen to their creation.”

The free-response questions are divided out between the group of AP Readers by giving each Reader a single primary question to grade. When the Reader finishes grading all of the student responses for their primary question, they are then re-assigned to the same type of question, but in another version.

Grading occurs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with meal and snack breaks for eight days. Prior to the grading process, AP Readers must go through a training on how to grade their question. “In the training, we study the rubric for the question, practice with student responses and discuss how each of the training questions would be graded,” McArthur said.

Once the training is complete, the grading can begin. As the Readers are grading, the leaders will back-read what the Readers have graded to make sure they are consistent and agree with the grading rubric.

“Personally, I always want to be accurate in grading, so it doesn’t upset me for them to check my work,” McArthur said. “It is always a relief when they let me know how their score relates to my score.”

AP Readers will grade thousands of exams during their eight-day grading term. Leaders will continue to back-read “because it is important for the Readers to be consistent and accurate,” McArthur said. “ETS [Educational Testing Service] never encourages speed in grading. They always encourage accuracy. Even if it were to mean overtime in grading.”

“Accuracy for every student is always their first priority,” McArthur said.

An AP Reader is invited to join the reading by the Chief Reader for their subject. Then they travel to the site, “which is usually a big Conference Center,” McArthur said.

“The first year I was an AP Reader was in 2007. I read three years in Nebraska, at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln,” McArthur said. “Then I read three years in Cincinnati, at the Convention Center near the Reds’ Stadium.”

After six consecutive years, AP Readers are put in a rotation “because they like to have a change in the readers so the grading doesn’t get into a rut,” McArthur said. “They have rules about a certain number of new readers each year, balance between high school teachers and college professors all over America.”

“It’s a way for the process to be about concepts and the rubric, and not so much about the people who are doing the grading,” McArthur said. “To me, it is one of the many ways that ETS works to keep it a very fair and student-oriented process.”

It’s not all grading and hard work for AP Readers. In the evenings, there are social opportunities as well as professional development. “There are usually events where people can share their new textbooks, other resources and teaching ideas,” McArthur said. “Here at Campbellsville University, we have recently switched Music Theory textbooks and we are using one that I first learned about at an AP Reading, as it was first being released.”

At the end of the Reading, AP Readers complete an evaluation with the entire group who graded the same questions together. “In the evaluation, we are asked to assess the question—was it a good question; was it too easy or too hard; did it present any unexpected challenges to the student,” McArthur said. “We are asked to evaluate the rubric—were there student responses that created an ambiguity in grading; should changes be made to the rubric; was anything unclear.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, AP Reading occurred from home in 2020 and 2021. Each day began with a calibration of grading pre-scored responses by the leaders to check the accuracy of the score according to the rubric.

“The positives, being at home, you can have some freedom in your schedule. ETS wants each Reader to work each day, for several hours, but, as long as it is online, we can arrange that time ourselves. Unless there was a meeting the entire group must attend together,” McArthur said. “It was also nice to be able to stay home with family instead of being away for eight to nine days.”

“The negatives, unless you message your leader or meet with your group on Zoom, you are alone. It’s much more pleasant to be with the group, in person. The days can feel much longer when you are alone,” McArthur said.

“I enjoy being able to contribute to such a wonderful opportunity for high school students—gaining college credit, based on their success on the exam,” McArthur said. “I appreciate the opportunity to learn so much through the process. By grading, looking at the question from the aspect of evaluating a response for its accuracy, I learn how a student will answer a question and can see how I can help a student be more accurate in their response. Also, I really enjoy having Music Theory friends all over the US. We stay in touch through the year with a special Facebook page for AP Music Theory Readers.”

Campbellsville University is a widely acclaimed Kentucky-based Christian university with more than 13,500 students offering over 100 programs of study including Ph.D., master, baccalaureate, associate, pre-professional and certification programs. The website for complete information is www.campbellsville.edu.