Coral reefs are declining worldwide due to increased incidence of climate-induced coral bleaching, which will have widespread biodiversity and economic impacts. A simple method to measure the sub-bleaching level of heat-light stress experienced by corals would greatly inform reef management practices by making it possible to assess the distribution of bleaching risks among individual reef sites. Gene expression analysis based on quantitative PCR (qPCR) can be used as a diagnostic tool to determine coral condition in situ. We evaluated the expression of 13 candidate genes during heat-light stress in a common Caribbean coral Porites astreoides, and observed strong and consistent changes in gene expression in two independent experiments. Furthermore, we found that the apparent return to baseline expression levels during a recovery phase was rapid, despite visible signs of colony bleaching. We show that the response to acute heat-light stress in P. astreoides can be monitored by measuring the difference in expression of only two genes: Hsp16 and actin. We demonstrate that this assay discriminates between corals sampled from two field sites experiencing different temperatures. We also show that the assay is applicable to an Indo-Pacific congener, P. lobata, and therefore could potentially be used to diagnose acute heat-light stress on coral reefs worldwide.