Grade Boundaries

What are Grade Boundaries, and how do they work?

Each year, we are contacted by parents and pupils who want to ask questions about grade boundaries.  This document will hopefully answer many of the most frequently asked questions.

Grade boundaries show the minimum number of marks you need for each grade, and are published on results day. 

Only once all exam papers in the country have been marked are grade boundaries set by senior examiners and assessment experts. It’s not until after all the marking has been completed that it’s possible to see how difficult students found the paper (for example, compared to previous years) and so take this into account when setting the boundaries. This means that a student who performed at a certain level should get the same grade regardless of which year they sat the exam, but it doesn’t mean they will score the same mark.

For example, a pupil could gain a grade 5 by scoring 83 marks in English Literature in 2019, but their brother who sat the Literature exam in 2018 needed 76 marks to get a grade 5, because students across the country found the paper harder that year.

Remember, grade boundaries are individual to a subject.  In 2019, to gain a 5 in Chemistry students needed to get 116 marks if they sat Foundation and 80 marks if they sat the Higher paper (which contains harder questions).  However, those sitting Physics needed to score 130 marks if they sat Foundation and 75 marks if they sat the Higher paper.   This shows that pupils found the Chemistry papers more difficult than the Physics papers across the country in 2019.

  • You cannot compare the grade boundaries of different subjects.
  • You cannot compare grade boundaries of one subject from one year to the next.
  • You cannot compare grade boundaries with someone who sat the same subject in another school, but with a different exam board.

Foundation or Higher?

In some subject eg the sciences, maths, staff have to make a judgement call on what tier to enter a pupil at, based on assessments throughout the course.

Exam boards must include some ‘common questions’ – questions which are the same on the Foundation and Higher tier papers – to help them align standards between the tiers. In theory, a pupil will perform similarly on those questions, regardless of the tier for which they were entered. So a pupil who might expect to get a grade 4 on the Foundation tier, would also expect to get a grade 4 on the Higher tier. 

However, the lowest key grade on the Higher tier is a 4, and if they fail to get this then they would most likely be ungraded (unless they were very close and were awarded a 3).  The maximum mark that a pupil can score on a Foundation paper is a 5. Staff therefore need to discuss which paper would best suit the pupil, in order to maximise their chances of success.


Information regarding grade boundaries can also be found on the exam boards websites - 

Pearson AQA