Plans to replace academic selection by the 11-plus transfer test have been published for consultation.
The last 11-plus transfer test will be in 2008
NI Education Minister Angela Smith said by 2009, schools could take pupils based on a flexible "menu of criteria".
This included having siblings already at the school as well as various community and geographical factors.
If selection could not be sorted out through these criteria, there would be "tie-breakers" including random selection and distance from the school.
The proposals could signal the end for grammar schools choosing pupils on the basis of their academic performance.
Ms Smith said the fact that pupils would have their first major choice at the age of 14 meant they could "keep their options open as long as possible".
SELECTION 'MENU OF CRITERIA'
Siblings currently at the school
Community/geographical criteria: feeder primary schools, parish, child-centred catchment and school-centred catchment
Tie-breakers, including random selection and distance
She said that by this stage, "pupils have begun to get a clearer idea of their interests and possible career goals" but there was still "ample scope for changes at later stages".
The minister said there would be better access to more academic and vocational courses.
Other proposed changes include a revised curriculum and a pupil profile by teachers of each primary school child.
The government said this was aimed at helping parents rather than being a replacement for the transfer test.
The consultation on the draft Education Order will run until 7 March, and the government is sending out leaflets with information on how to give their response.
In recent years, the number of children eligible to sit the tests has been dropping, and the proportion of them who choose to do it has also been falling.
Sinn Fein education spokesperson Michael Ferguson "broadly welcomed" the consultation.
"We now have an opportunity to deliver an education system that celebrates all intelligences and allows all children to achieve their human potential and learn at a pace that suits them," he said.
Ulster Unionist David McNarry said he was "extremely disappointed" by the announcement.
"The minister's announcement, which betrays a penchant to ignore public opinion on academic selection, is a dark day for democracy," he said.
"The proposals she has introduced through her draft order in council defy parental choice, are not improvements and are flawed."
The Ulster Farmers' Union has said some of the proposals would discriminate against children living in rural areas.
"We met the minister and explained fully to her the implications of including the distance a child lives from a school as a tie-break criteria," union deputy president Kenneth Sharkey said.
"In our opinion the proposal is so blatantly unfair that it shouldn't even have been included as an option in the consultation process."
Stephen Elliott of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education said the minister's plans were "flawed".
"The change in the curriculum and in the pupil profile is based on a progressivist approach to education which is now going to turn away from independent measurements, such as the transfer test, to ideas such as comment only marking," he said.
Mr Elliott added that these ideas had "already been proven not to benefit or provide equality of opportunity for children".
The decision to abolish the 11-plus transfer test and academic selection in Northern Ireland was announced in January 2004, following consideration of the Costello Group's report.
The government-appointed working body was set up to suggest alternatives to the current transfer tests.
This year, more than 15,000 Primary Seven pupils in Northern Ireland sat two hour-long examinations covering English, Mathematics, and Science and Technology.