A guide to GCSE and A-level grade boundaries

target grades concept art

Discover how grade boundaries define your exam results - and where to check them for each exam board

Marking GCSE and A-level exams is a pretty complicated business. After all, there are thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of exam papers to be checked in each subject, and the marking has to be consistent across all of them.

To help with that consistency, examiners check your answers against a mark scheme. Once they've done that, your work is given a mark that's then double-checked for accuracy.

So now you've got a mark. Let's say...70 out of 90 (great job, you). But that needs to be translated into your actual grade - and that's where grade boundaries come in. 

Someone has to draw the lines that match marks to grades. They might decide that everything marked 70 or higher in a particular GCSE subject is worth a 9, while marks between 69 and 63 are an 8; 62 to 57 are a 7, and so on.

These would be the grade boundaries - and in this example your 70 would get you a 9. Nice. If the grade boundaries had been set one mark higher (so a 9 is given for everything marked 71 or higher) your mark would have been worth an 8.

So, grade boundaries define how your exam mark translates into a final grade. But they're not just plucked out of thin air. Let's take a look at how they're worked out.

How are grade boundaries set?

Grade boundaries are set by senior examiners with the help of statisticians and other experts. 

They use a range of evidence including samples of marked papers from the current year and a sample from previous years. Senior examiners can then compare work that achieved the same mark and decide whether or not it’s comparable.

They will also have some fancy stats available such as data relating to the performance of that year group in national assessments such as GCSEs or Key Stage Two tests. These give an indication as to whether the year group might do better or worse than the year before.

The challenge for those setting grade boundaries is to make sure that a set of answers that was, say, awarded an A-level A* grade last year is still awarded an A* this year and a top A last year is still a top A this year. This is how standards remain consistent from year to year.

In reality it’s likely that exam boards will only set a couple of grade boundaries in this way. The rest will be worked out statistically. In the case of A-levels for example, only A* and E grades are set using this approach.

Why do grade boundaries change each year?

Despite examiners’ attempts to make every paper the same level of difficulty each year, students do find some papers harder than others. As the examiners’ job is to keep standards consistent they will need to make adjustments to grade boundaries in these situations. For example, they would reduce grade boundaries a little if this year’s paper was slightly harder than last year’s.

But unless a year group differs in ability from the previous year or the type of students taking the exam has changed, the spread of grades should be similar from year to year. This has become known as comparable outcomes, and it's a principle that's intended to ensure fairness in exam grading.

Of course, the upheaval of the pandemic, with the associated school closures and exam cancellations, has mixed things up a bit. As a result, grade boundaries have fluctuated a lot over the past few years.

No-one took exams in 2020 and 2021, with grades decided by teachers instead. When exams returned in 2022, the grade boundaries were intentionally set to produce overall results that were significantly higher than in pre-pandemic years. The most recent A-level grade boundaries, from summer 2023, were much closer to those from just before the pandemic.

Where and when are grade boundaries published?

GCSE and A-level grade boundaries are published on exam board websites on the same day and at roughly the same time as the exam results are released. At that point you can ask your teachers or exam office for a breakdown of your marks and see how close you were to a grade boundary.

Here are the links to the A-level 2023 grade boundaries on each exam board’s website. We'll update this page with links to the GCSE 2023 grade boundaries when they are released on GCSE results day.

A-level grade boundaries

GCSE grade boundaries

Should I care about grade boundaries?

Some students find it interesting to check grade boundaries from the previous year when they’ve completed an exam. Maybe they’ve used an unofficial mark scheme on The Student Room to get an idea of their mark and want to find out what grade that might be worth.

But beware: grade boundaries can change from year to year. And grade boundaries from the current year aren’t released until results day – when you’ll known your results anyway!

What can I do if I’m just under a grade boundary?

That’s bad luck, but you can have your mark reviewed. This means that the marking will be checked and changed if an error has been made. You should bear in mind that a review could see your mark go up, but it could also see it go down.

However that might not be very likely in this case as you are so close to the higher grade and unlikely to lose so many marks that you drop down below the next grade boundary. 

If you’re considering getting a review of marking, you’ll need to talk it over with your teacher.


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