What Percentage Should I Alter My Grade Boundaries By In 2019-20?

Author: Barnaby Grimble

Category GCSE, Grade Boundaries

This year has seen the third year of the new 9-1 GCSEs for English & Maths, and the second year for most other subjects. Ofqual said that the first year of the new GCSEs would have Grade Boundaries that would be slightly lower to account for the expected challenges and resulting impact related to delivering a new course. In the second year, we were warned the boundaries would rise. So, what happened to the Grade Boundaries between June 2018 and 2019? And what does it mean for teachers?

We wanted to write this blog about what we’ve been recommending and why, not only to share our suggestions but also to explain the methodology behind our theory.

As we have shared in our previous articles around Grade Boundaries, there is a logical process that has informed our recommendations, and we’ve come to what we feel is a sensible, informed decision on the boundaries that should and shouldn’t be used. Part of our recommendation is made up of statistical evidence and analysis, and the other part from considering the psychology of target-setting and attainment on both teachers and pupils.

The hard evidence

On GCSE & A-level Results Day we collated all the overall grade boundaries for each grade for each subject.

We compared the % difference between June 2018 and 2019. This followed the same methodology as the previous year when we only had English and Maths to make our judgements on (you'll find this discussed in our blog about last year's Grade Boundaries). We were interested in seeing the difference between the years, and qualifications across all exam boards. You can download the summary documents here, or at the end of this blog.

Our calculations showed us that on average, across all GCSE subjects, across all exam boards, the GCSE Grade Boundaries increased by 1.1% (i.e. got harder by 1.1%).

A-level was a bit more varied, as two boards increased on average and two decreased on average. Overall, A-level Grade Boundaries decreased by 0.4% (based on the subjects we analysed).

Although these figures are broad overviews, the table below gives a better breakdown and overall picture: 

GCSE and A-Level Grade Boundary Summary

What does this tell us?

Because Grade Boundaries increased in the majority of subjects for GCSE, this tells us that pupils were able to achieve more raw marks. The more raw marks in the exams, the more raw marks in the controlled assessments, the higher the boundaries will be as there can only be a certain percentage of pupils that achieve at each grade. Although the overview shows the percentage change was slightly less for A-level, there were still more subjects that increased their Grade Boundaries.

This aligns with what Ofqual strongly implied, that the first year of new courses will have slightly lower boundaries, with the second year boundaries increasing. This is in line with the way they set boundaries using comparable outcomes. When you think about it, it’s pretty logical that this would happen. Teachers had a brand new specification, assessment model, and grading system impressed on them in 2016, with a very short time to prepare for the changes. Therefore, raw mark scores weren’t that high. Then, as teachers always do, they learned from the process. They rewrote resources to better suit their pupils, learned how to improve performance in the exams by crowd-sourcing and developing better methodologies and practices from teaching communities, etc. So, when it came to the 2019 series, pupils were better prepared to sit the exams, just as teachers were better at delivering the specification. So, with more raw marks achieved, more pupils doing better, the higher the grade boundaries as a result.

By what percentage should I increase the Grade Boundaries?

When you download and look at the comparison tables at the bottom of the blog, you can see that there is a lot of variation between subjects and exam boards.

The biggest difference was an increase of a whopping +8.3% and the biggest decrease was -5.9%. This is a huge range. However, 83% of the subjects across all exam boards stayed within +3%. And bear in mind this was a year we were told to expect a big increase in the grade boundaries. 

2019 GCSE Grade boundaries Summary Highlighted

For A-level, 83% of the subjects we looked at were within +3%. Maths had the biggest shift in all four exam boards with the percentage Grade Boundaries going down significantly. Otherwise, the majority of other subjects stayed within +2%, with the majority still increasing. 

2019 A-Level Grade Boundary Summary-1

This is when data meets sensible thinking.

If you consider the reason for wanting to adjust the Grade Boundaries in the first place, essentially it’s to try and predict or counteract the increase that we are likely to experience in 2020. With that in mind (and with our teacher hats on) we want to think about what the worst case scenario would be.

If we look at what we think most Grade Boundaries will increase by next year, and increase the boundaries by this much, as a worst case scenario the pupils would achieve that grade predicted. In which case, we’re prepared. If the boundaries come in lower than expected, then Results Day will be a big celebration!

Considering the upper limit

Although this year did see some Grade Boundaries change by +4%, these were mostly limited to MfL and Science which both have tiers. The reason for the changes could be linked to the fact that teachers were more savvy and had more information to guide their decisions about which tier to enter students into. It would be very surprising to see changes much higher than this occurring again in June 2020.
Our first bit of advice would be to encourage sensible upper limits based on your subject and exam board. There are a lot of subject areas that don't vary by very much, particularly in the Arts. You will want to add a little extra challenge for your students and also counter any possible increases that are also likely in 2020. They are likely to go up again for all the same reasons as they have this year. 
This leaves us with quite a sensible suggestion that the boundaries should increase by a maximum of +3-4%. Therefore, we recommend you adjust by +4% to be on the safe side. Again, this is considering the rationale behind the process in the first place: to try and work to the worst case scenario.

Why not higher?

We’ve heard some schools have been considering setting their boundaries to +6% and in some cases +8% or +9%. The reason for our recommendation not to go this high is quite simple: it’s going to have a hugely detrimental impact on the motivation levels of both pupils and teachers. The thinking is, of course: “Let’s be on the safe safe safe side... if some subjects went up by over 6% in 2019, then what's an extra couple of percent going to do?”

Well, we’ll tell you. Increasing the Grade Boundaries by 8% is essentially suggesting that a pupil predicted to get a Grade 4 will need to achieve the number of raw marks needed to achieve a 5 or 6. The percentage gaps between each grade do vary for different courses, but are commonly between 7-10%. If you increase the grade boundaries by more than 8% you are at risk of predicting all your students a grade lower than they will actually achieve. This will have a negative impact on both staff and student morale, and could make identifying borderline students harder. It also ignores that fact that the large majority of subjects and papers varied by less than 2%. 

Be SMART and motivate

It’s important to remember that the purpose of setting targets and goals is to increase motivation. There’s no rocket science behind it, there isn’t even a quote from a well-published author or specialist in the field that I need to reference. All you need to ask when looking at any goal is whether it’s SMART. So, is the target (i.e. Target Grade) Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound (i.e. can it be achieved within the time allocated to it?) If the answer is yes, then you’ll be able to support and motivate your students to achieve it.


We hope this has been helpful!

Download our GCSE & A-level Grade Boundary Comparions here:

Download GCSE Grade Boundary Comparisons 2018/2019

Download A-Level Grade Boundary Comparisons 2018/2019

Or, if you have any questions, feel free to drop us a line at info@pupil-progress.co.uk