It's a stressful, chaotic and lengthy process that many parents compare to college applications — except in this case, it's for 10-year-olds.
This year, there's an added layer of confusion: The city's most selective middle schools have been forced to overhaul their admissions criteria to de-emphasize standardized exams.
Some programs are still figuring out how they will admit students, even as fifth-graders are set to receive their applications in just a few weeks.
"There's enough anxiety out there about the admissions process without having the use [of test scores] being unclear to parents,” said David Bloomfield, education professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College.
While most families in New York City send their children to zoned elementary schools near their homes, the middle school admission process is much more complicated.
Many families don't have a zoned middle school nearby and must research a range of options to decide which is the best fit for their kids. Admission policies vary by district and school, but many of the top schools have traditionally used kids' scores on the state's fourth-grade math and English exams as a key factor.
However, in March, state legislators ruled that students' scores on standardized state tests could no longer be the sole or primary basis for school admissions. That left 44 middle schools that used tests as the sole admissions factor scrambling to devise new policies, Department of Education officials said. Some other middle schools that relied heavily on test scores are changing their policies as well.
The DOE puts out guides every year describing the admissions policy for each middle school, but this year's guides note that admissions policies are in flux and suggests that parents call each individual school to find out more.
Many selective schools have said they will continue looking at test scores but will put more focus on other measures, like grades, attendance, essays and interviews. Other schools have not announced their new policies.
"Students are more than just one test score, and the use of multiple measures in admissions decisions gives schools a clearer picture of students' abilities," DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said. "We will continue to work directly with principals and communities to ensure that all families are made aware of any admission policy changes."
At the District 15 fair last Thursday night at Park Slope's M.S. 88, a line snaked around the block as anxious parents, many with 10-year-olds in tow, waited to learn more about new admissions criteria for schools stretching from Boerum Hill to Sunset Park.
"It's just craziness," said Beth Frazier, a Bedford-Stuyvesant mom who sends her fifth-grader Erin to Park Slope's P.S. 295, as she checked out the schools in the overheated gym.
Some parents said they were happy to see a shift away from test scores as a primary factor in middle school admissions, while others were concerned that selective schools would now have no way to objectively evaluate applicants.
"It gives us more hope that she has a chance," Frazier said of the changes. But she's still trying to be realistic with her 10-year-old that she might not get her top choice.
"You have to prepare them for failure," Frazier said. "There are way too many applicants for the more desirable schools."
Lisa Moser, whose son attends Park Slope's P.S. 321, said the application process was confusing.
"It stresses us out," said Moser, who has taken time off from work to go on school tours. "Every school seems to be doing it differently."
One of the districts most affected by the state's new policy this year was District 20, which covers Bay Ridge, Borough Park and part of Sunset Park. The district previously used test scores as the sole metric to decide which fifth-graders were admitted to its elite "superintendent's program," a gifted track that has about 1,000 seats across the district.
The district's new formula — developed in September at a contentious meeting with parents — gives 45 percent weight to state test scores, 45 percent to report card grades, 5 percent to attendance and 5 percent to punctuality, said Laurie Windsor, head of the area's Community Education Council.
After DOE told the district it would have to scrap its old admissions policy in June, Windsor spent the summer researching other districts' policies before developing new metrics for District 20.
"We were looking for objective criteria," she said. "We didn't want to get into teacher recommendations because then you get into that gray area of favoritism. I know other places use essays, but you don't want them doing that at home because anyone can write it. And if you do it in school, how are you going to pay the proctors?"
Still, some parents weren't pleased with the admissions changes.
"You can't make everyone happy," Windsor said.