What are grade boundaries and should I care about them?

Everything you need to know

Everyone knows what grade boundaries are. They're the boundaries between grades, or the minimum number of marks at which a grade can be achieved. OK, but why should you care about them?

What happens after an exam?

You do an exam, someone marks your answers using a mark scheme, you end up with a mark and then the marking gets checked to make sure it’s accurate.

But how is your grade determined? 

Someone has to draw the lines that match marks to grades – the grade boundaries. For example, is 70 worth an A* and 69 a A? If so, 70 becomes the A*/A grade boundary. 

Here is last year's grade boundaries discussion, with links to where you can find each exam board's grade boundaries when they are available.

We go into detail on what happens to your exam paper after you hand it in here.

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* 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?

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 this principle has been guiding grading for the last few years. Without comparable outcomes students taking a qualification in its first or second year might get lower grades due to teacher inexperience, lack of resources and so on.  

The principle of comparable outcomes has been really important in protecting the generation of students affected by exam changes.

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.

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 TSR 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. Watch out though as your mark can go down as well as up, although this isn’t very likely 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.

Go to TSR's Summer hub for articles on fun activities and work experience tips for the long break.

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