The Highlights of Color Coding: A Simple, Visual Way to Collect IEP Data

Updated: May 15, 2019

For the first two years or so of my special education teaching career, I considered progress monitoring an unavoidable evil that I was unprepared to tackle. I agonized over the best way to structure data sheets and often resorted to makeshift notes scribbled on scratch paper. The cognitive demand of making content relevant, redirecting student behavior, and rewarding positive choices all while collecting usable data was daunting. In addition to my own data struggles, I also faced the burden of sorting through data collected by my staff. I dreaded writing progress reports. While I desperately wanted to accurately represent student growth, I hadn’t yet found a meaningful way to collect data on student responses Everything changed when I realized I could harness my love of color to drive my data decisions

The Stoplight Model

Imagine a stoplight. This system takes as few as three colors though more could be introduced as desired for more nuanced ratings. The Stoplight Model I developed for evaluating student work is a modification of the Check for Understanding strategy where students display green to indicate they understand, yellow to indicate partial understanding, and red to indicate confusion. While I love this strategy, sometimes students inaccurately believe they "get it" before they really do. My color coding indicates level of prompt required for the student to produce an accurate response.


Green: Student was able to independently respond correctly without any adult assistance. I also code unprompted student self-corrects as green (e.g., student says “D, wait, no. I mean b!” when asked to identify the lowercase letter b).

Yellow: Student required only one indirect verbal prompt to arrive at the correct answer. For example, if shown the number 21 and the student answers 12, I might ask, “Are you sure?” or say, “Look again.” If the student then correctly responds  21, I code the response as yellow. Though they were not fully independent, they didn’t need too much help.

Red: Student needed a direct verbal or even more intrusive prompt (e.g., modeling, partial physical prompt, etc.) to reach the correct answer.

Advantages to Color Coding

Facilitates Fast Checks

Errorless learning is fundamental to teaching students with significant cognitive disabilities because we don’t want them to rehearse incorrect responses. Therefore, as a teacher, I am far more invested in how much prompting it takes for a student to answer correctly than the answer itself. While I could (and do) mark sheets with I for Independent, IVP for Indirect Verbal Prompt, DVP for Direct Verbal Prompt, etc., color-coding worksheets enables me to assess at a glance a student’s current performance levels. And, I can still calculate percentages ;).

Builds Student Buy-In

To increase student ownership, I allow them to mark their own papers as we go. I explicitly teach them the system while ensuring they realize that no color is “bad.” Green means they are good to go, yellow means to slow down and think carefully, and red means we need to stop and practice so we can get to green. Students who are working on basic numeral identification are not very impressed when I congratulate them by saying, “Hurray! You got 80%. Thanks for staying so focused today!” However, when they see a sea of green underlines by their answers, they’re able to recognize and celebrate their success. I especially enjoy letting students compare their work samples from when I first introduced a concept to when they've mastered it. Just like me, they can visually grasp their progress in a way numbers alone aren’t able to communicate.

Improves Home-School Communication

When I send completed work home with students, the level of accuracy (100%) is apt to mislead parents into assuming their child has higher skills than may actually be the case. The simple color-coding system lets parents see how their kiddos are doing without forcing them to learn even more special education acronyms (i.e., I, IVP, DVP, G, M, PP, PPP).

© 2019 by Amy Firestone